A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Humble Boy

Charlotte Jones’s “Humble Boy” was London’s latest new play to attain the status of an unqualified hit that moved to the West End, that is, on conclusion of its sold-out run at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe. A serious comedy – or a comic tragedy – it gracefully combines astrophysics with family squabbles, and Hamlet with bee-keeping.

Simon Russell Beale, who recently finished a much-applauded stint as Hamlet, impressively plays Felix Humble, whose name is the antithesis of his condition. Astrophysicist  Felix returns to the Cotswolds from Cambridge University to attend the funeral of his father, a biologist and beekeeper, only to discover that his mother is having an affair with a detested neighbor, George.  Diana Rigg is outstanding as Felix’s elegant and self-centered mother Flora, in black sunglasses and smooth blonde hair, very much the queen bee who expects all to serve her wishes, while she gives back nothing.  Brooding and unhappy, Felix is searching for the unifying or “string” theory that holds things together, that “explains everything,” yet he cannot understand what is happening around him, including his fathering a child with a past lover, Rosie, George’s daughter.           

Grieving for his father and dramatizing himself, Felix at the same time (like Hamlet) is intelligent, witty, and cynical.  But unlike Hamlet, he has no mission; he understands the theory of relativity and that of the big bang, but he considers himself a failure. The solution he seeks evades him out there in the cosmos, even as the people annoy him in the garden setting by Tim Hatley, composed of long grasses dominated by a giant beehive.   Some of the play is lofty and poetic, while some is farcical, like the luncheon at which Flora announces her engagement; a highlight is the disposition of the father’s ashes, contained in an antique honeypot, in the gazpacho prepared by their well-meaning friend.

The characters are an actor’s dream: drawn in depth, complex and imaginatively conceived.  In addition to the brilliantly realized roles of Felix and Flora, the rest of the cast is outstanding: Denis Quilley as the suitor Felix detests, Marcia Warren as the anything-but-helpful friend, Cathryn Bradshaw as Rosie, and William Gaunt as a mysterious gardener whose identity is revealed at the end.