Monday 19 March 2018

Theatre Review: Humble Boy (Orange Tree)

Jonathan Broadbent in Humble Boy (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

In The Full Room, his combative and deliciously partisan “A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting,” Dominic Dromgoole speculates that the work of Charlotte Jones “may represent the future of a form of populist theatre.” Praising her plays for their “magic realism that reflects life,” their “pervasive warping of the world, practised with heartfelt affection,” Dromgoole states that “Jones is naturally a public writer, and the theatre desperately needs talent like hers. Writers who can talk to an audience, engage them without begging for favour, and gently change their perceptions.”

Dromgoole’s loving appraisal was written with reference to two Jones plays – In Flame and Martha, Josie and the Teenage Elvis, which won her the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2000 – and just before the premiere of the work that would prove her biggest hit (so far): Humble Boy. Staged at the National Theatre in 2001, before a West End transfer the following year, Humble Boy offers a distinctive, appealing mix of sitcom humour, poetic flourish, family conflict, science and bee-lore, as it focuses on the return of a depressed Oxford research fellow, Felix Humble, to his family home in the Cotswolds following the death of his father, where he finds his mother already contemplating marriage to another man. The play’s ghostly intertext is, of course, Hamlet, and John Caird’s original production came complete with several cast members from the NT’s contemporaneous staging of Shakespeare’s play, most notably Simon Russell Beale, whom Jones had in mind when writing the lead role.

Inevitably, Paul Miller’s new production of the play, its first UK revival, doesn’t have the associations of Caird’s original staging. But it makes a great, fresh case for the play anyway - and a welcome one, since, contrary to Dromgoole’s prediction, Jones’s post-Humble work, such as 2004’s chilly The Dark, proved less immediately accessible to audiences. Here Simon Daw’s lovely garden set – with ivy up the pillars, and flowers planted into the stage - provides the cosy entry point for a play that cleverly mobilises the mode of pastoral English comedy for its own cheeky and sometimes subversive ends.    

Belinda Lang in Humble Boy (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

Jones is a whiz at writing characters with distinctive, individual voices and those voices come through vividly here in a memorable set of performances. The mother/son conflict is brought out particularly sharply from the off, with Jonathan Broadbent’s terrific Felix stuttering in his cricket whites as he observes his Ma’s removal of the bees that were his deceased entomologist father’s passion, pride and joy. By turns smart-alecky and achingly vulnerable, Broadbent makes the role his own, bringing both humour and real poignancy to Felix’s intellectual questioning and his confrontation with the limits of his own theorising. He’s exceedingly well-matched by Belinda Lang as the brittle matriarch Flora; elegant in sunglasses and Jean Muir, Lang shows no concern for likeability as she relishes the character’s waspish ripostes yet also suggests the crushed hopes that motivate Flora’s cruelty and vanity.  

As Rosie, the girlfriend whom Felix unceremoniously ditched when he left for Oxford, Rebekah Hinds makes the character a wry, resilient anti-Ophelia, while Selina Cadell’s befuddled, self-effacing hanger-on Mercy coverts a lunchtime grace – where conversation has already shifted from accusation to revelation to the best way to kill yourself – into a tragicomic showstopper.  

Selina Cadell and Christopher Ravenscroft in Humble Boy
(Credit: Manuel Harlan) 

Randy and ruddy-faced, a prosthetic penis poking out of his pants during the infamous urination scene, Paul Bradley brings a bullish, vulgarian’s vitality to the proceedings as Flora’s would-be fiancé. The spirit to Bradley’s flesh, Christopher Ravenscroft is as glorious here as he’s been in all his Orange Tree roles (Alison’s House, The Promise, The Conspirators, The Man Who Pays the Piper, The Stepmother), his gorgeous voice – a honeyed tone, indeed – employed to perfect effect as Jim, the gardener with a secret.  

Beautifully lit by Mark Doubleday to conjure summer's days and evenings, Miller’s production is perfectly attuned to the tonal shits in Jones’s writing. As farcical set-ups give way to philosophical speculation, the production builds to a transcendent, redemptive final sequence that re-purposes Ophelia’s mad scene to create one of the most beautiful and moving finales in contemporary British drama. Absent from UK stages for far too long, it’s good news that Jones has a new play, The Meeting, coming up at Chichester Festival Theatre from July, a complement to this richly enjoyable revival.     

Booking until 14 April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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