Last time I was at the Orange Tree, its stage had been completely stripped bare for An Octoroon. Now the in-the-round theatre has been magically transformed into a classically pastoral English garden, with ivy creeping up the pillars and balcony, the boughs of an apple tree hanging over the audience, branches entangled in the lighting fixtures, and roses, cornflowers, and violets planted into the stage. This secret garden is the sole site of Charlotte Jones’ 2001 play Humble Boy. It’s the pitch upon which the Humble family wrestles with their grief and grievances.
Felix Humble is a schlubby astrophysicist with very eighties wire frames, a wrinkled cricket uniform and unkempt (probably unwashed) blonde hair, who has returned from Cambridge to his middle-class home in the Cotswolds for his father’s funeral. But in what seems to be classic Felix fashion, he flees the funeral service to check on his father’s now retired beehive in the garden. His father was an entomologist determined to discover a new bee species – something his wife Flora sees as useless and insufficient.
Flora is a vain, shallow woman herself, sporting sunglasses to her husband’s funeral to hide the bruising from her recent nose job. She has also been having an affair with George Pye, the father of Felix’s ex-girlfriend, Rosie. Since James Humble’s death, George is eager to marry Flora, much to Felix’s horror and discomfort. What ensues is a Hamlet-inspired slow unravelling of feelings of bitterness, resentment, and forgiveness.
Jones’ play is highly literary affair that often gets tangled in its own metaphors, but Paul Miller’s revival balances this with excellently performed dark humour. Felix is always thinking about death in terms of bees or astrophysics, and the play is littered with metaphors of different life cycles: aphids, bees, the flowers in the garden, stars. As Felix explains string theory, we can hear the humming drone of these strings vibrating together, almost like the hum of a beehive.
There is a terrifying moment in which I wondered if the brash, crass, and boisterous George Pye had in fact murdered James Humble in classic Shakespearean fashion. Fortunately, although the family-driven story of death follows Hamlet very closely, it’s not a revenge-play. Instead, our queen bee Flora is given a chance to reconcile her feelings, and everyone is given a chance to forgive.
It’s all beautifully constructed, but what’s so odd is that it’s also very funny. Paying homage to classic British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers, the six-strong cast bounce off one another in dramatically complimentary ways, transforming melodrama into a more interesting balance of sarcasm, vulnerability and situational humour. The play even follows the classic Chekhovian dramatic rule to comedic effect: if a honey pot of your father’s ashes is introduced as a precious, delicate object in the first act, it will certainly be endangered in some fashion in the third.
Jonathan Broadbent plays Felix with a well-balanced combination of existentialism, suicidal dread and sympathetic aimlessness. Belinda Lang is astonishing as Flora Humble. She performs Flora’s cruelty with an excellent nuance of bluntness, coldness and fiery passion.
As Rosie Pye, Rebekah Hinds is spot on in her sarcasm, and shows a conviction in her decisions that radiates from throughout. The kind gardener Jim (Christopher Ravens) speaks with a deep love for his plants and a soothing voice that rivals Sir David Attenborough’s. Paul Bradley’s George Pye is easily detestable and certainly knows how to demand a room’s attention.
But comedically, it was really all about Mercy, Flora’s neighbour, who has inserted herself into the family drama out of loneliness and purposelessness. Selina Cadell’s timing and delivery is impeccable, and her ability to splutter, squawk, and reveal layers of dramatic irony in simple noises is wondrous. While the character is arguably there purely to set up the hilarious (and inevitable) garden party scene and to create tensions between the main characters, Cadell manages to make her sympathetic and vulnerable.
It’s her humour that lifts Humble Boy above another dysfunctional family drama. Instead, it emerges as a clever play that thrives on its British tradition of irony – of laughing at death, and staging loss in a bright, buzzing garden.
Humble Boy is at the Orange Tree Theatre until April 14th. For more details, click here.