FringeReview UK 2018
With Charlotte Jones’ 2001 Humble Boy Paul Miller’s Orange Tree revival turns out a warm-up for return to Jones’ theatre writing, with The Meeting scheduled to open at Chichester in July. Simon Daws’ single garden set is so realistic the brickwork skirting the grass actually trips up audience members. Mark Doubleday’s lighting emits summer stages with a filament of dark and Max Pappenheim’s music is both discreet and evocative. Till April 14th.
‘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. Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy involving string theory and the theory of everything, and their microcosmic opposite, bees, opens days before Hawking’s death. The buzz buzz is knowing in so many ways.
Paul Miller’s superb Orange Tree revival turns out a warm-up for Jones’ return to theatre writing, with The Meeting scheduled to open at Chichester in July. This 2001 play 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.
Simon Daws’ single garden set is so realistic the brickwork skirting the grass actually trips up audience members down the authentically bricked steps. Plonked at the end is an empty hive, occasionally illumined, and a tool-shed with hidden deckchairs, whilst much flora and fauna sprouts and even creeps up to the upper balcony. Mark Doubleday’s lighting emits summer stages with a filament of dark and Max Pappenheim’s music is both discreet and evocative; and there’s a buzz.
But Jones here is far more richly alive to redemptive outfalls. It’s what makes her themes of mental distress, alienation and dysfunctionality uplifting. There’s a tender, truly Chekhovian regard for even her most unpleasant characters. Here it’s Paul Bradley’s coach entrepreneur George Pye moving in on the unsympathetic ex-fashion-model-cum-Bunny Girl Flora Humble, played with such guillotine finality by Belinda Lang. She’s soon contemplating re-marriage, just 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 precision by Selina Cadell, in her place. For the moment. In this Danish pastry of Hamlet – and Felix is even as fat as Hamlet’s said to be – it’s easy to match Gertrude, a composite Claudius/Polonius, Polonia-like Mercy, and later on a determinedly un-tragic Ophelia. There’s even a place for gardener Jim. but it’s the decisions she makes around them that sets Jones apart.
Flora’s just cremated her husband (that pot) 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. Jonathan Broadbent registers every twitch and slightly-spectrum
There’s a reason beyond distaste that Flora’s done this; and the bees haven’t entirely vanished, as the gently learned gardener Jim (Christopher Ravenscroft) gently 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 rather rough-edged lover. He thinks Felix studies astrology, and Felix guesses he’s a Taurus, which leads to a smashing china shop of confrontations. George also refuses to believe Felix’s claim that his mother is asnomic, not quite knowing what it refers to a lack of a sense of smell.
As if this wasn’t enough, George’s daughter Rosie (Rebekah Hinds) and Felix had an affair seven yeas ago, and as she arrives, we learn that Felix was never told her child, Felicity, was named after him. Rosie admits the hordes of lovers she took on to console her, but Flora refuses to believe she has a grandchild. Hinds brings out the wonderfully uninhibited Rosie I both her watchful irony, the tiny shudders of tenderness and biting defensive irony. Discussing the paternity of her daughter she off-handedly dismisses the 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?’ She’s referring to her father’s efforts in that line as he bumbles into view. 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 (she removes his sun hat to prove this) 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, a child, a future meeting with Andromeda.
It’s in fact Mercy who provides the Ayckbourn-like climax to a disaster laced with gaspaccio, 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 sized on by Cadell. It’s only then she realizes what the seasoning is.
The resultant deluge of consequences are beautifully wrought, and 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. Felix has held it back even from Rosie. What happens next is extraordinary, and almost beyond a suspension of disbelief, but not quite.
This is the finest production of what we must now think of as a small masterpiece. Jones really deserves her place in the forefront of contemporary dramatists. Humble Boy confirms its own place, pivotal to he oeuvre which has grown more robustly and cleverly than the flora or indeed bees that ululate to the end.