BWW Review: HUMBLE BOY, Orange Tree Theatre

BWW Review: HUMBLE BOY, Orange Tree Theatre

BWW Review: HUMBLE BOY, Orange Tree TheatreThe first major revival of Charlotte Jones' play Humble Boy is another interesting choice by the Orange Tree's Artistic Director Paul Miller. It is surely a challenge to pull off a play that combines astrophysics, bee-keeping and Shakespearean family angst, but Miller achieves this in a neat and clever way, whilst maintaining tenderness and gentle comedy.

Set in a traditional middle class Cotswold garden blooming in the bucolic summer sun, the play sees Cambridge astrophysicist Felix Humble return to the family home for the funeral of his father. As the story progresses, it transpires that Felix's mother is having an affair with amorous neighbour George Pye, who is less than keen on Felix. The awfulness of the situation is increased by the appearance of George's daughter Rosie, who Felix himself betrayed many years ago. An excruciating summer luncheon follows where tension boils over into the cold gazpacho soup.

Jonathon Broadbent is excellent as the misery-soaked Felix; he conveys a shambolic and unkempt figure, with a lack of interpersonal communication and severe emotional constipation. Broadbent really inhabits the character and the audience bounces between frustration at his flaws and feeling deeply sorry for him.

The crux of the play is his battered and difficult relationship with his mother, whom he cannot bear to see as a sexual being. This, and his suicidal thoughts, demonstrates many echoes of the Hamlet story, with Felix also channeling Hamlet by being stricken at the death of his father and the prospect of his mother's remarriage.

Belinda Lang is brilliantly brittle as mother Flora, who is vain, often cruel and totally preoccupied with herself. Her steely aloofness and brittle, waspish comments raise many laughs, but also hide a hint of vulnerability that is eventually revealed.

One unconvincing aspect of the play is Flora's attraction to neighbour George, played with bouncing enthusiasm by Paul Bradley. There is little obvious to attract her to him except an escape from her husband and there is no real chemistry between the pair. At first Bradley's accent ricochets around Britain as vulgar neighbour George and the scene where he urinates around the stage with a plastic penis is misguided.

The remainder of the cast is universally strong with Selina Cadell offering welcome light relief as scatty neighbour Mercy, Rebecca Hinds is full of wit and heart as George's daughter Rosie and Christopher Ravenscroft is gentle and slightly haunting as gardener Jim.

What really stands out is Simon Daw's beautiful design of the manicured country garden. A parquet brick path surrounds a perfectly formed little garden, where roses, hebe and foxgloves all bloom together. Roses and ivy climb around the gallery and apple trees form a canopy above.

It is easy to see why Jones won the Critics' Circle Best New Play Award for Humble Boy in 2001. Her writing shows both the intricacy of Tom Stoppard, alongside the arch studies of human interaction and middle class relationships of Alan Ayckbourn. This is a play with many layers and Jones shows great skill in combining complex ideas with emotional intimacy and intricate characterisation, yet avoiding baffling complexity.

Humble Boy is at the Orange Tree Theatre until 14 April

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Aliya Al-Hassan

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