Theatre Review: Humble Boy, Orange Tree Theatre ‘Tangled Family Ties and Astrophysics Collide’

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Families are a nightmare. Bound by blood and collective memory, but divided by historical grudges, simmering resentments and personality clashes. How on earth can we successfully navigate our families??! It’s chaos out there, and no sooner has one argument been sorted out then another surprise springs out from leftfield. If only there was a constant, some certainty to cling on to…

That is certainly what Felix (Jonathan Broadbent) is after. His work life as a Research Fellow on theoretical astrophysics is a piece of cake compared to the fallout he faces as he returns to his family home in the Cotswolds for his father’s funeral: His father’s body barely cold and his acerbic mother (Belinda Lang) has already chucked out her husband’s clothes, had his precious bee collection removed, and is promptly moving on with her lover, George (Paul Bradley), a man whose rough edges and old-school masculinity rubs Felix’s shy sensitivities up the completely wrong way.

And all that’s before we even touch on the fact that George’s daughter is Rosie (Rebekah Hinds) a woman scorned by Felix when he left home for a career aiming for the stars in scientific breakthroughs and discoveries.

Oh, it’s all a mess for Felix. And this mess is superbly packaged up in this quite brilliant comedy from Charlotte Jones, revived at the Orange Tree is this production helmed by Paul Miller, that tears through its comic scenes at full pelt – laughing out loud is an inevitability as this is hilarious – yet breaks through into moments of real tenderness and heartfelt connection as Felix mourns not just for the father who has left him behind, but indeed for all that has been left behind in his life to this point.

This is a play about life and about families, about how nothing can be certain no matter how hard we try. Not all our ambitions and hopes will be rewarded with stars and recognition. And it is a masterclass in writing from Charlotte Jones.

This was a woman writer blending science and drama into plays long before Lucy Prebble, Simon Stephens and Nick Payne. I very much felt I was witnessing a woman flexing her muscles. String theory, event horizons, and the uncertainty principle are showered into this play knowingly and with style. Back in 2001 when this was first performed, this exploration of science was very much seen as a man’s territory but here is Charlotte pushing gender norms way before it became more commonplace.

And her deft talents weave this into a play that brims with laugh-out loud comedy. In Mercy Lott (Selina Cadell) Charlotte has created a perfect comedic ‘fly in the ointment’ foil, the neighbour who means well – always looking to smooth out ripples and wrinkles – when often it is impossible (and unwise) to do so. And she is executed to perfection by Selina whose timing and delivery is faultless and exquisite. She gives the piece its zip and its energy.

Indeed, this is a show of excellent performances all round, through it would be remiss not to shine a light on the delicate and rather astounding production design from Simon Daw who has filled the stage with foxgloves and roses, apple trees and garden arches, bee hives and wooden sheds. This is the most English of country gardens, and a perfect setting for a very English comedy.

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to April 14, 2018
Tickets from £22.50 (concessions available)
All production images by Manuel Harlan.

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