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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Humble Boy
Cottesloe Theatre    Autumn 2001

[Scroll down for our reviews of the West End transfer.]

Charlotte Jones' new play is a vehicle for six personable actors to give very satisfying performances, and ultimately that should be enough to recommend it, even in the face of the play's shifting tone, inconsistent characterizations and unclear purpose.

The central character, Felix Humble, is a theoretical physicist working on superstring theory (to oversimplify, the elusive search for a comprehensive explanation for life, the universe and everything).

He is drawn back from university to the family home for his father's funeral and, like many adult children, finds himself sucked back into his complex and ambivalent relationship with his mother.

The discovery that she had been having an affair with a neighbour and that they plan an immediate marriage complicates things, as does a reunion with an old girlfriend with revelations of her own.

Also present are a gardener who dispenses wisdom with his weedkiller and the mousy spinster neighbour who seems happy in the shadow of Felix's more glamorous mother. All these characters are going to be faced with the task of making sense out of their lives, or at least of finding a way to carry on in the absence of answers.

The play's tone swings wildly, from social comedy to melodrama to farce to drama of ideas to mysticism.

The mother, a bit of a social butterfly, sometimes seems like an escapee from Ab Fab, sometimes like a gorgon, sometimes like a strong woman reaching the end of her strength. Her lover is a charmer who can turn in mid-sentence into a deadly viper.

Scenes of painful emotional exposure are followed without transition by Noel Coward banter or low farce. There's a black comedy dinner table scene which encapsulates all the horrors of social interaction gone sour, while an urn of the father's ashes is the subject of two extended farcical sequences, and there's a sight gag involving a low chair that is stolen bodily from Alan Ayckbourn.

Somewhere in the middle of all this the play makes a half-hearted attempt to connect everyone's search for understanding with Felix's scientific quest, and a more extended parallel between beekeeping (the father's hobby - the title is a spoonerism-pun for bumblebee) and the social structure of the family.

But it takes a playwright with the skills of Tom Stoppard (in Arcadia or Hapgood) or Michael Frayn (in Copenhagen) to successfully turn science into dramatic metaphor, and Jones doesn't really pull it off.

A little more fun is had with the Hamlet parallels (you did notice them, didn't you? there's also a ghost and a catalogue of flowers, among others), but they're ultimately just window dressing, with no real resonance.

What the play ultimately says, which is something like "Keep on looking for answers, but figure out a way to go on functioning in the meantime," has real trouble coming through all the static, and isn't as satisfying as it might be.

What is thoroughly satisfying, though, is the acting. Simon Russell Beale, perhaps building on his recent experience as Hamlet, succeeds in creating and sustaining a character defined almost entirely by confusion and distractedness.

He makes Felix so overwhelmed by his interior demons that simple conversation with others is like swimming up to the surface from a great depth.

Diana Rigg, past mistress of the acerbic quip and withering stare, keeps us sufficiently aware of the mother's barely-armoured fragility to make even her cruelest moments bearable.

Marcia Warren sensitively juggles pathos and comedy as the mousy neighbour,and a measure of her success in making this dramatic cliche come alive lies in the fact that her one modestly controlled moment of rebellion gets a spontaneous round of applause from the audience.

Denis Quilley, reliable as always, leaps the chasms of the lover's mood and character shifts with grace; Cathryn Bradshaw fleshes out the girlfriend who has more grit and sensitivity than Felix expects; and William Gaunt gives gravity and reality to the gardener who is too obviously just a plot device.

Director John Caird has led all of them to performances that go a long way toward papering over the play's many cracks.

Gerald Berkowitz

GIELGUD THEATRE SPRING 2002: Transfer to the West End and a major casting change give the opportunity for a second look at Charlotte Jones' sad comedy (or funny melodrama) of family life.

I am still not at all clear what the play as a whole is about, but a number of strong scenes and quiet epiphanies (or, in the play's language, Eureka moments) about the everyday cruelties and kindnesses we offer each other, along with its strong performances, make it well worth the visit.

The key cast change has Felicity Kendal replacing Diana Rigg as the new widow coping with the homecoming of her moody and self-absorbed adult son.

Rigg played her as cold and prone to viciousness, with a quietly-spoken line like "I am incandescent with rage" freezing your blood, and only late in the play let us see that this was the brittle exterior of a woman trying desperately not to fall apart.

Kendal lets us see the woman's fragility from the start - that line about rage, which comes in her very first scene, sounds more like she's fighting back tears - and, as a result, draws us into her emotional journey.

And so the play, which had belonged fully to Simon Russell Beale as the son when it was at the National Theatre, is now more evenly balanced between the two of them.

The metaphoric connections to theoretical physics and beekeeping are still very tenuous, but they seem less important and thus less frustrating the second time around.

What Jones shows us is a stage full of people each facing their own needs and frustrations, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) reaching out and lashing out at each other, and she helps us see that the vicious flashes may be as much expressions of need as the more tender moments.

Russell Beale's performance is subtle and touching, especially when you know (or guess at) the play's one surprise twist, and the rest of the original cast have all modulated and deepened their characterisations satisfyingly.

As I said in my original review, the play is more a collection of strong scenes and performances than a clearly-defined whole. But I can recommend it for the acting and for its many affecting moments of emotional exposure and truth.

Gerald Berkowitz

JUNE 2002: A full cast change is the occasion for a third visit to Charlotte Jones' sad and comic look at family life, and the good news is that little has changed and a few things even work better. (For a fuller account of the plot and themes, see our earlier reviews above.)

Indeed, the fist impression one has is of an understudies' rehearsal, as most of the new cast give exact duplicates of their predecessors' performances.

Certainly Adrian Scarborough mirrors and echoes Simon Russell Beale's performance as the provincial Hamlet figure almost exactly, while William Gaunt gives an even more unwavering copy of Denis Quilley (down to specific arm gestures) as the Claudius.

Maria Aitken's mother is, as you might guess, closer to Diana Rigg's iciness than Felicity Kendal's softer interpretation, though perhaps not quite so brittle as Rigg.

Anna Calder Marshall plays the mousy neighbour a little less ditzy and more pathetic than Marcia Warren did, while Sophie Duval makes the hero's ex-girlfriend perky rather than coolly confident, and Peter Blythe's gardener is not quite as warm as William Gaunt's was, all to no significant effect on the whole.

And in at least one way there's an improvement. Talented as he is, Simon Russell Beale always seemed doubly miscast in the central role, coming across as too mature for the play's Oedipal themes, too asexual for the romantic subplot.

Even when copying Russell Beale's performance, Adrian Scarborough projects a boyishness that makes both aspects of his role a little more believable.

At any rate, anyone coming to the play now will be seeing essentially the same thing original audiences saw at the National Theatre last year.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Humble Boy - National Theatre 2001

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