Humble Boy - Geilgud Theatre 2002

Thursday, 20 June, 2002
Review by: 
Amanda Hodges

Buzzing back into town after its original staging at the National's Cottesloe last year, Charlotte Jones' touching and richly rewarding new play now gets a cosmetic makeover- in the form of a new cast. After Diana Rigg and Felicity Kendal comes Maria Aitken in the role of Flora, the overbearing, vain mother of academic Felix who's returned home after the sudden death of his father, a teacher and devoted bee-keeper. Stepping into the shoes of Simon Russell-Beale is Adrian Scarborough who some may recall from his time as the inimitable Mole in the National's peerless Wind In The Willows.

A somewhat befuddled astro-physicist, Felix has an uneasy relationship with his mother, bitterly resentful of her relationship with George Pye (William Gaunt in fine form) and hounded by his own demons. Rather like Tom Stoppard's Arcadia that fused history, scientific enquiry and the pursuit of love, Jones' play covers a broad spectrum but does so with confident aplomb and a compassion for her characters that's most appealing.

Tim Hatley's inspiring set design conjures the Humble garden beautifully: the grass is waist-high, there's a huge, symbolic beehive perched at the top and an overhanging tree bough with a solitary apple poised upon it. Live music is played offstage, atmospherically mirroring Felix's internal dilemma. Although there's an over-leisurely pace to the first Act and it takes quite a while to grip, once we're into the second half everything dramatically improves. All the cast are impeccable- Anna Calder Marshall particularly memorable as long-suffering neighbour Mercy - and both Scarborough and Aitken convince superbly well in their respective roles. Bittersweet, witty and perceptive, it's a play to cherish.


Next Review by Darren Dalglish
6th Feb 2002

When I saw this play by Charlotte Jones at the small Cottesloe theatre at the National last August I said how wonderful the play was, particularly with its impressive cast which included Diana Rigg who was perfect for the role of Flora, a sophisticated formidable cold woman. However, now that the show has transferred to a larger auditorium with Felicity Kendall replacing Diana Rigg, the play has lost some of its sharpness, particularly in the first act as Kendall fails to bring the same vain matriarchal mother figure to the character of Flora as Rigg so brilliantly did. However, after the interval Kendall begins to mould the character in her own style and comes across more vulnerable towards the end of the play than Rigg managed. I suppose the main reason Kendal fails in the first act is that she has a sweet and amiable manner which she often brings to her characters which I have grown use to over the years and so found hard to shake off.

The story, set in middle England, concerns 35-year-old Felix Humble, an astro-physicist, who has come home after the sudden death of his ‘bee-keeping’ father. However, he does not get on with his difficult and demanding mother, Flora, who has been having an affair with a neighbour, George, for the last five years. To complicate matters, George’s daughter, Rosie, informs him that he is the father of her 7 year-old daughter. Felix is now in despair and self-pity sets in as he looks back on his failures in both his career and personal life. However, he seeks temporary solace in Jim the gardener who is more optimistic about life, the garden, and the now absent bees, which Flora had removed after her husband died.

As I wrote in my previous review of this play, the story is not particularly deep or inventive, it is more a pedestal for the characters to intrigue and amuse. The ever dependent and extraordinary Simon Russell Beale has again produced a stupendous performance as an angry, child-like, hapless man who stutters when under pressure. He delivers his sharp witty lines with precision timing.

The likable Denis Quilley plays the dull-witted George. Marcia Warren, who plays the church going Oxfam helper, Mercy, is hilariously funny, particularly when she puts some of the dead fathers’ ashes into the soup thinking it is seasoning! Cathryn Bradshaw as Rosie, and William Gaunt as Jim, make up this fine company.

Tim Hateley’s set design was phenomenal at the Cottesloe and it felt as through I was in a garden as soon as I walked into the auditorium. The whole stage was draped with artificial grass with roses, lilies, daises and other flowers. At the back of the stage the whole area was piled up with tall grasses and small pathways with a big beehive in the middle. However, in the Gielgud, while still impressive, it has lost some of its impact. I no longer felt I was in the garden with them, more across the road. ( I guess I was spoilt at the Cottesloe! )

One cannot help and compare the production in both spaces and my verdict is that it is far superior in a small space rather than a large one as it is an intimate play that benefits from close contact with the actors. I much prefer Diana Rigg for the character of Flora because she has more bite, but Felicity Kendall is more adept when the character is more vulnerable. Also, having seen the play a second time I found that it is not as brilliant as I originally thought. It can labour for long stretches and so if you have a short attention span you may tire of it.

The show still gets a thumbs up from the popular press, but then it was just voted 'Best New Play' at the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards: NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "I admit to being gently amused and interested, touched and entertained by Humble Boy's awkward mixture of comedy and farce, drama and intellectualism. " CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Magnificently fresh, clever - and moving." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN , unlike me, prefers the play in a proscenium arch theatre saying, "Jones has written an elegant variation on the traditional family play that perfectly suits the West End proscenium arch. " BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It’s not surprising that Rigg was far more chilling in this role than Kendal proves now....Yet Kendal’s softer approach pays dividends.... I can say that, thanks to Kendal’s vulnerability, a notably untragic ending seems less sentimental than it did at the National."

If you did not see the play at the Cottesloe last year I certainly recommend you go and see it at the Gielgud. If you have seen it at the Cottesloe then you may be less impressed with this outing.

(Darren Dalglish)

Links to full reviews from newspapers...

Evening Standard
Daily Telegraph
The Guardian
The Times

Next review by Tom Keatinge
April 2002

Charlotte Jones’s new play, Humble Boy, was well received when it had its premiere at the National Theatre in August 2001. I missed it then, however this was perhaps fortuitous as the move to the Gielgud on Shaftesbury Avenue has been accompanied by the arrival of Felicity Kendal – an absolute favourite of the white, southern middle classes, so disliked by BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies – in the role of Flora Humble. I was not to be disappointed. Humble Boy is a charming and entertaining piece, with some marvellous acting from the whole cast.

Despite the ominously cerebral programme note entitled “The Theory of Everything”, this is not a taxing play at all – in fact quite the reverse. The evening seemed to roll by with remarkable ease, wafting ever so gently over the senses, like the slow summer’s days that were being enacted on stage, with bird song twittering from hidden speakers in the auditorium. All this in the company of an excellent cast, magically led by Simon Russell Beale as Kendal’s forty year old socially inept yet scientifically brilliant son Felix.

The plot is straightforward enough: Flora is recently widowed, but not so recently that ardent admirer and long-term extra-marital lover George Pye (Dennis Quilley) can resist proposing marriage any longer. Felix, who has come home from the comfort of his university work to grieve his father’s death has an inherent dislike of Pye senior, although this disdain has obviously not extended to his daughter Rosie (Cathryn Bradshaw) in the past.

Amongst all these tangled relationships flits Mercy Lott (Marcia Warren), the delightfully stupid yet perfectly harmless neighbour whose attempts to do good seem so unappreciated by everyone else. For me, this is more or less where the complexity of the piece ends – human relationships are never easy, particularly where strong emotion is involved, made all the more strained in this case by the uncomfortable presence of the urn containing the ashes of the recently deceased Humble senior. Flora Humble discovers all this as the delightfully slimy Pye tries to press home his desire to marry her. Whereas an equilibrium had previously been created by the presence of two men in her life, the undivided attentions of just one become intolerable for her. Kendal is surprisingly good in this part – she does of course resort to the cutesy role that she plays so well whenever the part allows, but is refreshingly assured as the bitter and at times angry widow.

Quilley too suits his part perfectly – fantastically suave, and every woman’s dream, or at least so he thinks! But for me, it is Russell Beale who stands out in this cast. This is truly a brilliant piece of acting, demonstrating the range from comic timing to more solemn and thought provoking playing. I suppose the only disappointment for me was Marcia Warren, winner as she was of this year’s Olivier Award for best supporting actress, for a performance that left me utterly cold, and at times wondering when on earth she was going to sit down or get off. Yet that aside, this is a wonderful evening, an entertaining book, and, under the guidance of director John Caird, a superbly acted production, with Simon Russell Beale’s marvellous talents once again to the fore in Humble Boy.

Tom Keatinge

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