The first test of an acclaimed new play's survival is whether it can outlive the departure of its original cast. (The next test is whether it can survive a different production). It's a question of whether it's the play or the cast and staging, or all three, which actually earned the praise.
Now that the entire cast of Charlotte Jones' multi award-winning Humble Boy has been overhauled - including the sole remaining member of the original company, William Gaunt, who has switched roles - I approached seeing it for a third time with some trepidation. I needn't have worried; the play remains as resonant as ever in John Caird's sublime production, and a mostly exemplary new cast are more than a match for their predecessors.
As the mother, Maria Aitken - back on the London stage after far too long an absence - restores some of the brittleness and haughty but faded glamour that Diana Rigg first brought to the role, and I shall not easily forget the sight of her in the second act, looking like a gazelle in an orange kaftan.
Better still is Adrian Scarborough, who has an even tougher act to follow in replacing Simon Russell Beale as son Felix, a role that was actually written with Russell Beale in mind. Scarborough has the same edgy tentativeness, if not the obvious discomfort in inhabiting his own skin, that is Russell Beale's signature (and you suspect, burden, in real-life as well as stage-life). Scarborough compensates instead with the palpable discomfort of occupying an ill-fitting suit that once belonged to his character's late father.
Another revelation is Anna Calder-Marshall, replacing Marcia Warren as the irritating busybody of a family friend Mercy. While Warren rendered her hilariously as a figure of clumsy fun, Calder-Marshall brings more humanity and pathos to this pathetic creature that earns the laughter even more.
William Gaunt now switches from the role of gardener Jim (in which he is replaced by Peter Blythe) for the larger part of George Pye (originally taken by Dennis Quilley), the coach company operator who has been having a long-term affair with Aitken's Flora. As Pye's daughter, Rosie, who once had a relationship with Felix, Sophie Duval doesn't make quite the same impression as Cathryn Bradshaw.
Humble Boy is freshly invigorated by its new company and deserves to have a long continued life.
- Mark Shenton
Note: The following review dates from February 2002 and the production's first West End cast.
There's something rotten in the state of the Cotswolds in Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy, winner of Best New Play honours from both the Critics' Circle and Whatsonstage.com Awards. The inhabitants of Elsinore have packed their bags, relocated to an English country garden and taken on the identity of a modern-day dysfunctional family. This is the tale of (as one character puts it) the kind of folk who give people who live in the countryside a bad name.
The play's dreamlike 'Alice in Wonderland' set of overgrown grass and foliage has recently been uprooted from its National Theatre home. Now a further lease of life on the West End lies ahead, with a new matriarchal figure in the cast. Diana Rigg has gone to make room for Felicity Kendal as the fierce mother in this episode of twisted countryside mores.
Central to the piece is son Felix Humble. An astrophysics researcher aged 35 going on 12. Suffering a loss of impetus after his father's death (sounding familiar yet?), Felix spends the summer rambling around the family garden, talking to a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't gardener called Jim (William Gaunt) and searching for his own 'eureka moment'.
The bumbling, stumbling Felix, played Woody-Allen-style by Simon Russell Beale, has trouble saying his 'B's. His erstwhile father James, meanwhile, took on the challenge of another kind of Bees. His ashes are placed in a honey-pot as a wink to his former pastime and his giant beehive sits central stage, ensuring James' omnipresence.
If there is indeed something rotten in their household, self-obsessed widow Flora (played deliciously, if less domineeringly than her predecessor, by Kendal) can't smell it. Her recent nosejob may be the reason, or perhaps it's her preoccupation with local entrepreneur Robert Pye (Denis Quilley). When he's not lost in the big band music of Glenn Miller, Pye occupies himself by holding an ongoing grudge against Felix. Robert's daughter Rosie (Cathryn Bradshaw), meanwhile, takes on the Ophelia role recovering from being loved and left by Felix long ago.
The language and imagery used within the play runs deep. There's the constant hum of the bees, the talk of other planets and black holes and of course the correlation with a certain family from Denmark. However, despite this richness, the play sometimes drifts along like a simple garden party farce, leaving you wanting more to sink your teeth into.
The moments of comedy are the play's strong suit. These are capitalised on most by a fantastically slapstick Marcia Warren as long-suffering family friend Mercy Lott. In the second act, her social errors at a mad-hatters tea party overshadow what should be the play's grand denouement.
Hamlet said, "the play's the thing", but in this case, it's the darkly comic characters and the incisive acting that makes the night.
- Julie Goodhand
Note: The following review dates from August 2001 and the production's original run at the NT Cottesloe.
Press night at the National, and whilst the air wagged thick with talk of the NT's radical new plans, the immediate future of British theatre was about to unfold on stage. Already a name to drop in the huddled critics' circle for In Flame, Charlotte Jones can expect either a backlash or acclaim beyond her dreams after Humble Boy.
Never mind transforming the Lyttelton, the Cottesloe was almost unrecognisable in designer Tim Hatley's thickets of stage greenery. 'See if its grown by the interval,' suggested the gent next to me, as we surveyed the towering banks of fake verdure that accounted for half the venue.
Into the rural garden setting steps Simon Russell Beale as Felix Humble. The jittery stutter of his opening words reveal a man in the midst of personal crisis, hardly helped by the overbearing presence of Diana Rigg as his mother. Rigg appears wearing a huge pair of dark glasses, giving her an almost bee-like demeanour, which soon becomes significant. Poor Felix humbles and stumbles through the bumbleless garden, for his mother has disposed of his late father's prized bee collection. However, the empty hive towers silently over the set throughout, like an omnipotent monument.
Suffering under his mother's whipping tongue ('My only son has grown fat and strange') Felix cuts a curiously lovable figure. Yet, like Uriah Heep's famously very 'umble character, his innocence also masks a surprisingly acerbic nature. Most of his scorn is reserved for his mother's suitor George Pye (a suave Denis Quilley), as Felix finds solace in memory, science and nature. Apples are sought, apples fall and are consumed in the Edenic garden where serpents of ill-fated romance twine and writhe.
The second half brings a familiar dinner party setting, with Felix forced to confront potential fatherhood as former partner Rosie Pye (Cathryn Bradshaw) emerges. Marcia Warren, as Rigg's long-suffering companion Mercy, also faces up to some cutting reality in a wonderful cameo performance. Meanwhile, William Gaunt as the crisply dignified gardener lurks by, before revealing a twist in the tale that'll have your brain racing to try and recall earlier clues.
If there are criticisms, then one can say that Jones tackles way too many themes for any to be explored thoroughly. Physics, science, nature, marriage and shattered families all compete for the attention. But to dismiss this as a play about the conceited traumas of Middle England would be to miss the point. Another author might have poked fun at the lofty ambitions, unspoken losses and blighted lives, but Jones cares sufficiently about her characters, whilst the astounding cast involved do her work full credit.
The Humble Pye families do both ultimately get what they deserve, although perhaps not what either of them might have wanted. Even the bees receive a kind of justice by the end, in a play that seems certain to create a buzz whichever way you look at it.
- Gareth Thompson