After its hugely successful production staged at the National Theatre in 2001, Paul Miller brings a new revival of Humble Boy written by Charlotte Jones to the Orange Tree Theatre.
The play takes place within the Humbles’ country garden. Designed by Simon Daw, the setting is exquisite. Soft morning light hits the central lawn, whilst arched beds have been filled with flowers the colour of purple, crimson and midnight blue. Apple trees form a blanket over the ceiling and vines spiral and weave along the balcony of the theatre, threading through the auditorium. A gentle, serene beginning that all too quickly turns sour.
Felix is an astrophysicist, who has come back to his family home for his father funeral, to find that his self-obsessed mother, Flora (Belinda Lang) has moved on and not looked back, to his disgust. Desperate to preserve her youth, Flora is a spiteful, icy character who belittles her son. Only the local businessman, George Pye (Paul Bradley), seems to interest her. It is not long before echoes of Hamlet filter through the narrative, as family tensions begin to fizz and crack and relationships start to turn toxic.
Lost and detached from everyone around him, Felix is an anxious man (played by Jonathan Broadbent). It seems his stammer has returned. Struggling to cope, frustration and closed anger swallows his words. Broadbent’s execution is extraordinary; he performs a passage of broken sentences and disjointed dialogue. His timing is superb, as we agonisingly wait for the silences to pass. The only person, who seems to understand him, is the mysterious presence of the gardener, Jim (played by Christopher Ravenscroft). A humble man, his lilting, soothing voice, talks about the beauty of nature; with words that speak about plants, light and texture. His passing comments evolve into philosophical messages. He leaves it to us to determine it’s meaning. ‘The hive without its bees, says it all.’
Jones’s writing is both witty, touching and moving. Words dart back and forth; and we are taken from Flora’s waspish remarks that sting, to a kaleidoscope of poetic imagery where the theory of physics is introduced to us and bees rain from the sky, obliterated in a haze of smoke by an apocalypse of beekeepers. Are the ashes in the urn, Flora’s husband; it seems they could have been mixed up with someone else’s? Crematoriums are badly organised these days. She shakes our emotions and I find that I am beginning to uncontrollably laugh at what is a terrible morbid tale.
When a lunch party is set, everyone has been told to get along and make an effort. It seems Flora has lost her sense of taste, champagne is overfilled and a forgotten suit is resurrected to everyone’s dismay. When Mercy, an eccentric figure (Selina Cadell) decides to bring a peace offering by saying grace, we see an extraordinary piece of acting. She never draws breath, mumbling over words, she flits from one story to another; it becomes a relentless expression of her confused thoughts and troubled heart. It is not long before a debate begins to brew; can one kill oneself with one’s head in the aga instead of an oven? Mercy suddenly realizes something is wrong with the gazpacho she has made. Perhaps it was the new ingredient she used for seasoning?
The piece balances between gentle humour and underlying sincerity as we follow a mother and sons relationship. They push and pull away from each, both dependent upon each but also longing for independence. Has their love for one another turned into an equation? As it draws to a close, we remember what the gardener told Felix about bumblebees, ‘they don’t obey the law of physics but they still fly anyway’. He reminds Felix, but he also reminds us that life does not always follow the rules.
Humble Boy is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 14th April. For more information and tickets, see http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/humble-boy