Humble Boy - National Theatre 2001

Saturday, 11 August, 2001
Review by: 
Darren Dalglish

The following review is from the National Theatre run starring Diana Rigg (Felicity Kendal has took over her part in the Gielgud run)


Directed by John Caird, this new play by Charlotte Jones is a brilliant character play that glitters with caustic humour, and with a cast to-die-for, is it any wonder the show is completely sold out?

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 ‘ghostly’gardener who is more optimistic about life, the garden, and the now absent bees which Flora had removed after her husband died.

The story is not particularly deep or inventive, it is more a pedestal for the characters to develop, intrigue and amuse. Simon Russell Beale has again produced an incredible performance. It is clear he is becoming, if not already, an exceptional actor who can take on any role and turn it into something special. His performance as an angry, child-like, hapless man who stutters when under pressure is stupendous and he delivers his sharp witty lines with precision timing. And if this is not enough for a hungry thespian like myself then there is the formidable Diana Rigg, playing Flora, his mother. The minute she works on stage with big dark glasses and an air of sophistication you know you are in for a treat. And what a treat it is as she and Russell Beale bounce off each other with witty banter. Rigg is perfect as the vain matriarchal mother who has just had a nose job but is now thinking of getting another face lift because the new nose makes the rest of her face look old! The way she flamboyantly walks around the stage is a delight. And if these two actors are not enough you also have the likable Denis Quilley, who plays dull-witted George. (Does he really get his willy out and pee on the stage?). Marcia Warren as the church going Oxfam helper, Mercy, is hilariously funny, particularly when she put some of the dead man’s ashes into the soup thinking it was seasoning! Cathryn Bradshaw as Rosie, and William Gaunt as Jim, make up this fine company.

The set design is phenomenal. I saw “All My Sons” at the Lyttelton a few days ago and I said it felt like I was in a garden as soon as I walked in the auditorium. Well, with Tim Hateley’s set design at the Cottesloe it is even more so! The whole stage is draped with artificial grass with roses, lilies, daises and other flowers. At the back of the stage the whole area is piled up with tall grasses and small pathways with a big beehive in the middle.

Most of the popular press liked the new play.... RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Sharp heels and sentimentality make eclectic mix.” She goes on to say, “The play’s flaws are not fatal, and are considerably outweighed by the laugh-till-you-cry moments.” MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, “It’s a winner, with a fascinating back-ground story.” He goes on to say, “It is so talented and original, so funny, and the acting so good, we are carried through on a wave of delight.” JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "This is a marvellous play: harsh and forgiving; sad, very sad; funny, very very funny; learned and intricate but light on its feet; a scienti- fic fantasy and a tough family drama; a piece of music echoing itself; a poem about people, bees and the galaxy." He goes on to say "If Rigg's character were a flower, she would be a venus flytrap, enjoying the trapping more than the eating." KATE KELLAWAY for THE OBSERVER says, " Charlotte Jones writes best here about missed emotions, people and events. But don't miss her play. Make a beeline for it." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Charlotte Jones looks very much like a dramatist built to last." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Humble Boy is... rich, original, intelligent, funny and touching, bursting with ideas and characters that you come to care about deeply." ALEKS SIERZ for THE STAGE says, "Beautifully written, with a fine balance between raucous humour and psychological insight, this is packed with scientific metaphors." However, not all critics were enthusiastic, LUCY POWELL for TIME OUT says it is a "Disappointment". She goes on to say, "The Twists in the tale never amount to a much needed sting, emotionally it is almost impossible to engage with..." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says "Beautifully acted as the play is, you feel that Jones's Cotswold comedy is slightly too frail a barque to carry so much intellectual cargo."

Lastly 2 hours and 30 minutes this is a sentimental play with sharp witty lines delivered by a sharp cast.

Get down to the National and start queuing!!


Links to full reviews from newspapers...

The Sunday Times
The Times
Daily Telegraph
The Observer
The Stage
The Guardian

Looking for the best seats...