Orange Tree, Richmond
THE BIG problem with a contemporary play which pays homage to other writers is that, without a strong authorial voice, the end product is less than satisfactory.
Thus it proves with Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, which won several awards after its 2001 premiere.
There are shades of Alan Ayckbourn here and Tom Stoppard. And there's a reworking of Hamlet too, as son Felix Humble (Jonathan Broadbent) returns to the family home after the death of his father to find his mother Flora (Belinda Lang) cavorting with lover George Pye, played with energetic vulgarity by Paul Bradley.
The signalling of a “humble Pye” joke comes to fruition so late that it already feels tired and some of the themes are well worn too.
The unfortunately named Felix is unlucky in his love for Rosie Pie (Rebekah Hinds). He's more optimistic that his field of study, Super String Theory, will bring everything into perfect symmetry, unlike his imperfect life.
For those not fond of the conflation of genius with madness, this character may elicit more irritation than sympathy. Broadbent is altruistic and sweet, though, in a crumpled and chaotic performance reminiscent of a young Michael Williams.
In a restrained and masterly portrayal, Christopher Ravenscroft as the sage-like Jim is particularly striking in a scene with Flora in which his poetic recital of the Latin names of flowers is joyous.
But Humble Boy belongs to Selina Cadell. Playing Flora’s loyal retainer-cum-friend Mercy, she reassures us from the off that we are in safe hands. Her yearning to help this fractured family towards a kind of symmetry permeates this disjointed play with more themes than substance. Her saying of grace through gritted teeth, her fortitude crumbling, is melancholy and hilarious.
While Flora, widow of an amateur apiarist, is the queen bee here and there are some well-crafted sarcastic lines delivered by this selfish and vain woman, the romance with George feels incredible and the scenes between them lack any real emotional punch.
Rather humdrum, in fact, which kind of sums up Humble Boy's impact.
Runs until April 14, box office: orangetreetheatre.co.uk
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