Humble Boy

Charlotte Jones
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
(2010)

Being recognised for your talents can lead to unwanted results - think of all the football bosses who've suffered defeat immediately after being named manager of the month. Thankfully New Vic artistic director Theresa Heskins is in a different league: if she were a footballer she'd be top goal-scorer because she's nearly always on target.

Humble Boy is the first project she's been involved with since she was included in the Cultural Leadership Programme's national list of 50 Women to Watch. With it came the acknowledgement that she's one of the most talented and ambitious women in the UK creative industry.

There's no doubting her directing prowess, as regular audiences at the Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round know well. She's also adept at picking plays which will engage and enthral New Vic audiences - and also choosing the right acting and creative teams for them, as she's done for Charlotte Jones' seminal comedy.

Humble Boy began life at the National Theatre in 2001, the following year winning the Critics' Circle award for best new play. It was staged in the Cottesloe alongside Hamlet, the two plays having similar overtones. John Caird actually directed both of them and the actors who played Hamlet, Ophelia and Polonius all had parts in Humble Boy.

In a way I'm glad I didn't see Simon Russell Beale's portrayal of Felix Humble, the central character of Humble Boy, because it might have led to comparisons with Martin Miller who takes on the role at the New Vic. He gives a stunning interpretation of the mega-intelligent astrophysicist who has a much better understanding of black holes than personal relationships.

While there are parallels between Felix and Hamlet in their bonds with their respective mothers, Felix shows a different level of profundity. Miller gives us a multi-layered performance which is at its zenith in the scenes with his overbearing mother. His boyhood stutter returns whenever he's unable to handle stress.

Carol Royle is perfectly cast as Felix's mother Flora, the classy, diamond-loving attention-seeker who's just had a nose job and who's unable to see beyond the exterior of bumptious, flattering, long-term lover George. She's as inadequate in prioritising what's important in her life as she is in being a good mother.

Andy Hockley, last seen at the New Vic as the hapless Lucky Eric in John Godber's Bouncers, is hugely enjoyable as George Pye, the working-class man who's been successful in business yet beneath the veneer is inelegant and uncouth.

Clare Calbraith shows spirit as Rosie Pye, the twenty-something trying to break out of her father's shadow and make a different kind of life for herself. At first I had problems with the fact that she could be attracted to Felix with whom she had a long relationship. Perhaps she was magnetised by his incalculable knowledge, in the same way that some women are drawn to men in a position of power.

Julia Munrow makes the most of the part of family friend Mercy Lott. She comes into her own in the second half when she appears vacuous and easily upset at trivialities while everyone around her is quarrelling and telling hurtful truths as the wine flows freely.

Michael O'Connor has the unenviable job of trying to make something out of the character of gardener Jim and isn't completely convincing in the role.

As for the set, Liz Cooke has produced a visual indulgence of a garden with a hexagonal design reminiscent of honeycombs, reflecting the fact that Felix's father was a keen beekeeper.

On the whole Theresa Heskins has enhanced her reputation with Humble Boy. She's scored another winner. On this performance she's definitely one to watch.

Steve Orme