Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2023

Humble Boy

Southwick Players

Genre: Comedic, Contemporary, Drama, Fringe Theatre, Live Music, Theatre

Venue: The Barn, Southwick


Low Down

A revelatory production of what we must now think of as a small masterpiece, where Ayckbourn and Chekhov echoes recede to Charlotte Jones’ uniqueness. Jones really deserves her place in the forefront of contemporary dramatists. Humble Boy confirms its own place, pivotal to her oeuvre which has grown more robustly and cleverly than the flora or indeed bees that ululate to the end.


Charlotte Jones’ 2001 Humble Boy, Directed by Nettie Sheridan, Producr Anita Jones, Stage Manager &DSM Pete Dilloway.

Set Design, Lighting & Effects Design Martin Oakley, Set Decor Bob Layzell, Lighting Operator Laura Johnson, Sound Design Torrin Geiler, Sound Operator Jeff Woodford.

Workshop Team Martin Oakley, Ron Lanchbury, David Otway, Len Shipton, Liz Slough, Dean Common, Nigel Bubloz,

Set Dressing Nettie Sheridan, Jo Hall, Rehearsal Prompt Sue Gullen, Wardrobe Nettie Sheridan and Cast, Props Jo Hall, Publicity Design Phil Nair-Brown, Publicity Sarah Papouis.

Special Thanks Gary Cook, Barn Box Office, Sharon and Ian Churchill, Sally Diver, Front of House Team, Southwick Community Centre staff and Volunteers, BBC Radio Sussex, Seaside radio, The Adur Beekeeper, Maybury Garden Centre for loan of plants

Till September 16th.


“Stephen Hawking had his breakthrough when he was getting into bed… The nerve cells in his spinal cord were disintegrating… but all the whole his brain was buzzing with complex equations.” As ever plays have an uncanny knack of finding their time.

The last major revival of Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy involving string theory and the theory of everything, and their microcosmic opposite, bees, opened at the Orange Tree in March 2018 days before Hawking’s death. As Nettie Sheridan’s superb Southwick Players production of this 2001 play opens, scientists have just confirmed the existence of supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies. The buzz-buzz is knowing in so many ways.

Humble Boy proves a delicately-wrought masterpiece riffing off Hamlet – and in one way not quite apparent till the end. Or put it another way, Jones is doing for Hamlet what Ayckbourn did for a genre in his The Revengers’ Comedies. And there’s an Ayckbournesque lunch party with a seasoning pot from hell, or at least the Styx. Sheridan’s added a masterly pre-set and dumb-show (Hamlet again) but this time four beekeepers arrive and extinguish the hive. It’s unique to this production.

Martin Oakley’s single garden set is so realistic that stage-left you see a serried library interior up steps through the glass-door-fronted house. Plonked at the end opposite is an empty hive, occasionally illumined,  and a tool-shed with hidden deckchairs downstage, with flora and fauna. Martin Oakley’s lighting emits summer stages with a filament of dark and back-projection. Torrin Geiler’s music is evocative, occasionally a touch loud but his exquisite sound design brushes gradations of buzz.

Jones here is richly alive to redemptive outfalls. It’s what makes her themes of mental distress, alienation and dysfunctionality uplifting. There’s a tender Chekhovian regard for even unpleasant characters. Here it’s Nick Roughton’s coach entrepreneur George Pye moving in on the unsympathetic ex-fashion-model-cum-Bunny-Girl Flora Humble, played with brittle edginess by Diane Robinson. She’s soon contemplating re-marriage, two months on.

“My husband is dead and my only son, who has grown fat and strange, has just run away from his own father’s funeral. I’ll be fine. Fine. At least those bastard bees have gone.” That puts churchy hanger-on Mercy, played with tremulous anxiety by Debbie Creissen, in her place.

In this Danish pastry of Hamlet – Felix is as fat as Hamlet’s said to be – it’s easy to match Gertrude (with a touch of Arkadina from Seagull), a composite Claudius/Polonius, Mercy with a dash of R&G, and later on a determinedly un-tragic Ophelia. There’s even a place for gardener Jim. But it’s decisions she makes around them that sets Jones apart.

Flora’s just cremated her husband and the first we see is said strange son Felix research fellow at a Cambridge College in string theory stuttering – a newly re-acquired affliction – over the removal of bees from the hive his apiarist and botanist father kept.

Dan Jones registers every twitch and slight-spectrum. He enters, exploding stutters, but soon proves he’s master of his low-status, shamed-son position, registering everything from bewilderment through despair, to illumination: one “eureka moment” Felix generously gifts to someone else. There’s self-deprecating wit, tenderness, love. And unexpected authority. Jones is a tour-de-force of Charlotte Jones’ creation.

There’s a reason beyond distaste that Flora’s ordered bee-extinction. Though bees haven’t entirely vanished, as gently learned gardener Jim (Julian Howard McDowell, distinctly-voiced, tender, wistful, finally lyrical) confides in Felix. The queen with a few drones still secretly presides.

All Flora sees is Felix’s veneration of a dead failure and hostility to a rough-edged lover, George Pye, who wants Flora to change from Humble to Pye. Flora’s had Pye, but eating him too? She hesitates. Roughton’s loud George is consummate noisy allure, imposing a big-band vulgarian, replete with Glen Miller.

George thinks Felix studies astrology. Surprisingly Felix guesses he’s a Taurus, leading to a china-shop of confrontations. George dismisses Felix’s claim his mother is asnomic, lacking a sense of smell, possibly after a nose-job. But.

As if this wasn’t enough, George’s daughter Rosie (Lou Yeo) and Felix had an affair seven years ago (symmetrically when George and Flora started). As Rosie arrives, we learn Felix was never told something. Rosie admits hordes of consolatory lovers. Flora and George are united in disbelief. Yeo brings out the wonderfully uninhibited Rosie in watchful irony, tiny shudders of tenderness and biting defensive justice; indeed Yeo sharpens this.

Discussing a revelation Rosie off-handedly dismisses snobby Flora. “I’m very much of  the ‘fuck you Mrs Humble’ line of thinking. It just makes this all today a little bit ironic, doesn’t it?” A trainee midwife, she’s under few illusions – her father’s brutal “you’re not a looker” has him add “but you’ve got character” being one.  And she has got character.

Rosie’s also very happy to rekindle awkward sex on the lawn even if she doesn’t love Felix any more, but at the same time asserts it’s not casual sex. They’re interrupted by another pair of lovers. Despite these disavowals, you achingly want them to rekindle their feelings; perhaps Felix can grow into knowing what love is. Jones teases, but perhaps there’s a door for a reason; a future meeting with Andromeda.

It’s Mercy who provides the Ayckbourn-like climax laced with Gazpacho, and seasoning, with Jones’ killer-bee wit stinging everyone, as Felix needles George who in turns makes an unexpectedly moving speech about his father’s aircrew experiences. But its Mercy’s climactic interventions, each giving way to more disasters that culminate in the grace she’s invited to give by Felix, who wants her to take some limelight. The subsequent release of feelings and asides is masterly; Jones’ generosity in making the overlooked character act pivotally with such a speech seized on by Creissen.

The resultant deluge of consequences are beautifully wrought; after a final achingly tremulous scene between Felix and Rosie, one of startling redemption. Perhaps James the father wasn’t so useless after all, as a letter proves. What happens next is almost beyond a suspension of disbelief, but not quite.

This is a revelatory production of what we must now think of as a small masterpiece, where Ayckbourn and Chekhov echoes recede to Jones’ uniqueness. Jones really deserves her place in the forefront of contemporary dramatists. Humble Boy confirms its own place, pivotal to her oeuvre which has grown more robustly and cleverly than the flora or indeed bees that ululate to the end.