Review: Humble Boy (Orange Tree Theatre)

Charlotte Jones’ play is revived in south London

The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond is making an excellent habit of dusting off exactly the plays from the recent past that you most want to see.

Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy was a huge success when it was first staged in 2001, holding in its compassionate yet wildly comic grasp the story of the universe, of a family, and of much, much else. It seemed to announce its author as a major talent, a woman who could take on the mantle of Alan Ayckbourn and even Tom Stoppard for the ease with which she blended humour, psychological realism and big themes.

Jones’s career has spluttered a bit since then, so it’s a great pleasure to welcome Humble Boy back to the stage before her new play The Meeting is due to open at Chichester. It has the odd longueur, the occasional over-written passage, but broadly speaking, beautifully withstands the test of time.

Any resemblance to Hamlet is entirely intentional. The play opens at the funeral of James Humble, a boring Cotswold-based biologist whose grieving son Felix, a student of theoretical astrophysics, is unable to cope with his death and has refused to give the funeral oration. This is just one source of fury and dissatisfaction for his mother, Flora, whose dark glasses conceal both her anger and the bruises of her recent nose job.

Her lover and now her suitor George Pye is anxious to marry her; he has a daughter Rosie, who once loved Felix and was abandoned by him. A ghostly gardener and a busybody neighbour called Mercy (the Polonius figure) fill out the action.

Their names all mean something, carrying metaphorical force – and slightly too many jokes about Humble Pye. That’s one of the themes of the play, the value of words and the importance of naming things. It’s set in a garden, beautifully realised in Simon Daw’s lush set, which tucks a shed into one corner of the stage, and a beehive into another. Here, Felix grapples with suicidal despair and his inability to find a general theory of everything, that will tie the large forces of the universe firmly together with the smallest atom. The jump to a fractured family life is not that hard to read.

The writing is perhaps over-schematic, but it is truthful and warm. And the jokes are plentiful and good. This is the kind of play we don’t much see any more, one that seeks to entertain and make you laugh as much as it wants you to think and feel.

Paul Miller’s tightly directed production catches all the comedy but the characters seem slightly too large. As the atrocious Flora – "I am not upset. I am in a state of terminal disappointment." – Belinda Lang is a perfect picture of elegant disdain. But she skates over the surface of Flora’s unhappiness; her confrontations with Felix (a suitably baffled, rumpled Jonathan Broadbent) and George (excitable Paul Bradley) fail quite to fire. She often doesn’t look at the people she is talking to, and although she is touching at the end, she fails to find the subtleties of sadness and rage that Flora displays.

The acting honours are around the edges. Selina Cadell’s face as the put-upon Mercy is an endlessly expressive pattern of embarrassment, good nature and regret. Her long speech, when her attempt to say grace becomes a conversation with a God that she feels has abandoned her, is a comic tour-de-force that never loses track of the profound loneliness beneath. Christopher Ravenscroft is a gentle presence as the gardener, while Rebekah Hinds endows Rosie with ferocity, resilience and good grace.

It’s a generous play, with hope in its heart, and it feels very good to spend an evening in its company.

Humble Boy runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 14 April.