Humble Boy – March 2018

Experience: 8/10

By Charlotte Jones

Directed by Paul Miller

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2018

It was good to see such a strong production here again, after our last visit. The set was good, the performances very good and we enjoyed ourselves very much. The only downside for me was that I’m currently waiting for an appointment to get my ears syringed – until that happens everything is a bit muffled. But in such a small space, and with such skilled actors, that wasn’t a problem today. I may have missed the occasional word, but that’s normal.

The set was a pretty, English country garden. The central lawn was surrounded by a narrow path of brick paving, some of which was pretty uneven, but we managed to get to our seats OK. The lawn had two corner beds, in the entrance and far corner, with a stepping stone in the middle for access and assorted shrubs either side. It’s a long time since I did any gardening, so there’s no chance I could list all of the plants, but I did spot a white rhododendron to our right and foxgloves to our left. The lawn itself was in good shape – a lush green colour with no noticeable weeds.

In the far corner, just to our right, was a wooden beehive, with more foxgloves behind and various plants round the base. Ivy grew up round the pillars and along the balcony, and there were flowering climbers in the left and right corners as well. The left corner, behind the pillars, showed the door and window of a garden shed, while the French windows to the house were in the right corner. Above all of this hung several branches, and later on I noticed there were clusters of apples amongst them. The plants were artificial (I checked, as did several other people) but even so, it was such a pleasant setting that a number of people exclaimed how lovely it was as they came in. The gentle sound of birds tweeting in the background – that’s the natural sound, not the use of a digital communication platform – added to the pastoral ambience.

I won’t go through the whole story here. It’s a beautifully worked retelling of the Hamlet story, with plenty of changes to keep us on our toes and an ending full of reconciliation and hope. Felix, the Humble boy of the title, is a socially challenged, presumably autistic, theoretical physicist who has returned home after his father’s death. Unable to speak the planned eulogy at his father’s funeral, he fled the church and came back to the garden, which is where the play starts. From there we see the family relationships play out with a believable degree of dysfunction.

His mother is furious with his behaviour, and is supported in this by a ‘close’ family friend, George Pye. George’s daughter, Rosie also makes an appearance: her previous relationship with Felix led to a daughter, Felicity, about whom Felix knew nothing till now. He was also completely unaware of his mother’s affair with George, and this series of revelations leads to some major arguments and even an intentionally ludicrous fight scene towards the end.

The group is rounded out by two other characters: Mercy, a long-time friend of Flora’s, and Jim, the gardener, who was clearly the ghost of Felix’s father, though not everyone in the audience spotted this at the time. There was some uncertainty at the post-show about Jim’s interaction with the real world – he put his own ashes on the table at one point, leading to a very funny gazpacho episode – but theatre is, above all else, the art of collective imagination, and interactive ghosts fit perfectly well into that world as far as I’m concerned.

All the performances were excellent. Jonathan Broadbent played Felix beautifully, giving him the awkwardness and vulnerability which are essential to his part. Belinda Lang was wonderfully catty as Flora, describing her character in the discussion afterwards as a ‘vile person’. We managed to have some sympathy with Flora for a few moments, when she revealed the extent of her isolation from everything she considered important, but on the whole she was an intolerant bitch who gave motherhood a bad name.

Paul Bradley’s George Pye was all bluff and bluster, a narrow-minded but successful businessman who thought he could bully his way into Flora’s life and Felix out of it, while his daughter Rosie (Rebekah Hinds) was probably the strongest character of the group, having opted to bring up her child on her own, trained as a nurse and then choosing to retrain as a midwife. Felicity was in safe hands.

Jim, the ghostly gardener, was played by Christopher Ravenscroft, and he showed us the gentle academic with whom Flora had fallen in love so many years before. His posthumous success in having a variety of bumble bee named after his wife was the trigger which led her to break off with George, and which finally allowed her to see Jim in the garden. (My eyes are getting moist as I type.)

In such an excellent company it’s hard to single out any one actor, but in today’s performance the honours go to Selina Cadell, who played Mercy, a desperate people-pleaser with a good heart. Selina’s comic timing is superb, and it was a joy to watch Mercy try to keep everyone happy and smooth over any rough spots. Her comment that George was “a very nice man underneath” was a more telling, and funny, criticism than any of Flora’s insults of Mercy, which followed soon after. Her attempt at saying grace was also very funny, despite exposing her own unhappiness even more, and her realisation of what she’d actually used to flavour the soup was brilliantly comic. In every little detail it was a consummate performance.

I’m reminded that we’re seeing a new play by Charlotte Jones this summer at Chichester, The Meeting. If it’s even half as good as this one, we’re in for a treat.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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