London Classic Theatre has been turning very fine productions and in recent years I have enjoyed, at the Theatre Royal, Frozen, Love In The Title and Old Times and last year at Garter Lane, their director, Michael Cabot, delivered a witty and vital Abigail’s Party. This year, at Garter Lane, they surpassed themselves with a beautifully nuanced production of a 2001 hit, Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones, who wrote the book for the Webber/Zippel musical, The Woman In White, in 2004 and it had a West End and Broadway showing.
Humble Boy is a play that does not read well and its fine tuned English like a Stoppard play and the intricacy of an Ayckbourn with a transformation or re-incarnation scene well into Act 2. It was a surprise hit with audiences, perhaps due to the inclusion of Simon Russell Beale, Denis Quilley and Diana Rigg in the original production.
On one level this is a reconciliation play between a frost ex-model mother and her odd astrophysicist son, after the funeral of her husband, a teaching biologist and beekeeper. Apparently the father was deemed a failure and died of anaphylactic shock as a result of a Queen bee sting. The play is full of recriminations and perhaps imagined hurts. But the setting in a superb English garden I a metaphor for the play itself and the lives of those who enjoy the garden.
The play opens with physicist Felix Humble in the garden after the funeral and he is distraught and stammers and stutters about maths, variables, black holes and some theory about unified fields (read as garden). His obvious grief equates with stumble (from crisis to crisis).
His mother Flora, a disappointed good-looking woman brings him his father’s ashes in a honey urn wrapped in birthday paper. She, it emerges, is considering marrying George Pye (another maths reference) and they were having an affair for some time, apparently with the dead husbands consent.
This adds to Felix’s grief and it also turns out that Felix has unknowingly fathered a child (absent minded academic) with Rosie Pye and if her father marries Flora, Felix and Rose would be step-children. It is at one remove that kind of complication but Michael Cabot makes it very believable. There are two other essential but strange characters and before the play resolves itself there is a dead man’s ashes in the soup and much much more.
This production was beautiful and the cast excelled in wonderful characterisations. Jeremy Daker designed a glorious garden. John Dorney was an excellent Felix. Pauline Whitaker shone with frosty passion as Flora. Catherine Harvey was a sexy, earth mother, as Rosie. Peter Cadden was essential as George and I remembered him from previous work. Jeryl Burgess was Mercy Lott and Martin Wimbush as the gardener was silent and evocative.
By the end of the play, the end of the summer, neither the people or the garden would ever be the same and that was the magical quality of a truly wonderful play.