Humble Boy

Charlotte Jones

Cottesloe, RNT

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

In the same way that the RSC commissioned their Other Eden season as a modern response to Shakespeare's history plays, the National Theatre appear to have asked Charlotte Jones to write Humble Boy to elucidate last year's production of Hamlet. It has the same director, John Caird, as well as Hamlet, Ophelia and Polonius in the persons of Simon Russell Beale, Cathryn Bradshaw and Denis Quilley.

The play itself, while set in current time, has many overtones of Hamlet. There is an uncertain man with an overbearing mother who immediately after her husband's death seeks to remarry. To add to the fun, our youngish man has a broken relationship and regular visits from a ghostly apparition.

For this production, the RNT has put together a great team. As well as director, Caird, and the actors named above, the rest of the cast, Dame Diana Rigg, Marcia Warren and William Gaunt are all well-known names and top actors. On top of this, designer, Tim Hatley's set, which is reminiscent of his earlier effort in the Cottesloe for Sleep With Me, is a joy to behold, with waist-high grass and a man-sized beehive, together with the bough of a tree holding a single symbolic apple. Joe Cutler's music is also very apt with a trio creating exactly the right atmosphere, especially cellist, Zoe Martlew.

This play is very densely textured and plotted with much use of clever symbolism. On one level, it is, indeed, a reflection on Hamlet. It also delves into many aspects of love and familial relationships. There are sub-plots relating to the lives of bees, the nature of parenthood and an astro-physicist's view of the universe and Black Holes. The combination of Charlotte Jones' subtle and poetic language and her cleverly created characters makes this play a dream following her rather turgidIn Flame.

Felix Humble is a 40 year-old who is searching for a unified theory to explain the universe. He believes that somewhere there is a perfect defining moment that will make everything all right. While he has the mind of a genius, as soon as he goes near to his vain mother, Flora, he develops a stutter and regresses about 30 years. This is not too surprising in the presence of a woman who bombastically states, "The last word is my prerogative”. He has just lost his father and, as a result, is forced to return to the maternal home. Within hours, he has blotted his copybook by running away from his father's funeral.

It takes innocent Felix some time to realise that his mother has been carrying on an affair with the dreadful George Pye, a greasily appropriate Denis Quilley. Felix is far happier with his stars and life becomes even more complicated for him when he meets his former lover, George's daughter, Rosie. The interaction between the initially overbearing Diana Rigg as Flora and the beautifully uncertain Simon Russell Beale eventually evolves to the point where the son is forced to support and comfort his mother.

Many mysteries unfold through the two-and-a-half hours of this play and strangely, most of the funniest scenes revolve rather distastefully around the late James Humble's ashes. While this poor man worshipped bees and his wife, between them they were his undoing. It falls on his son's shoulders to recover the self-respect of both male Humbles.

With a cast of this calibre, it almost goes without saying that the acting is immaculate. Everybody plays his or her part both literally and figuratively in ensuring that this play will linger in the memory for a long time. Following its sell-out success at the National Theatre, it is now transferring it to the West End for what could be a long and lucrative run.

To accompany this review, we are republishing Philip's review of the production of "Hamlet" mentioned in the text.

David Chadderton reviews the Library Theatre, Manchester, 2004 revival.