Humble Boy at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Anthidium_February_2008-1

Humble Boy

Orange Tree Theatre, 11th April 2018

Sometimes it can be tricky to put your finger on exactly why a play doesn’t quite work for you. Other times it is easy. This was one of the latter. For me, writer Charlotte Jones lavishes so much attention on shoehorning in all her ideas, themes and research, and emphasising the foibles of character, that she forgets to create a worthwhile story. Not a problem if the play were formally inventive but the set-up here could hardly be more unremarkable.

Felix Humble is a chubby, geeky astro-physicist man-child prone to warbling on about the theory of everything, M theory, string theory, event horizons and the like. Not by way of explanation, more like the kind of pseud who writes a blog on culture without really knowing what he is talking about. Amateur entomologist Daddy has died and Felix comes home to Mummy, Flora, who has got rid of Daddy’s bees and lacks the maternal touch. There is a gardener, (guess who that is), lurking in the flowerbeds who is prone to profundity and knows all the Latin names. Mummy has taken up with a yokel made good, George Pye, who owns a coach company, likes a drink and is the antithesis of Daddy. Mummy has a friend Mercy, to bully, and provide extra comic relief. George has a daughter, Rosie, that Felix improbably impregnated before he took off to the dreaming spires. Felix, it turns out, is a Daddy too.┬áMummy and Felix acidly snipe, Felix and George spar, Rosie tells Felix to man up. Mercy bites back. There is an embarrassing Ayckbournish dinner party. Mummy and Felix, sort of reconcile. Dady’s ghost exits.

What with the bees, the epigrams, the Hamlet references, the “science-y” stuff, the pithy lines, the cod-psychology, it reeks of “cleverness”. And that is probably what did for me. The performances are fine, especially Jonathan Broadbent as Felix and Belinda Lang as Flora, though Paul Bradley as George, Rebekah Hinds as Rosie, and especially Christopher Ravenscroft as Jim, have a few uncomfortable lines to hurdle over. Best of all though was Selina Cadell’s Mercy mostly I think because her comedy and pathos was more rooted in sympathy than intellect. Simon Daw’s garden design uses every available millimetre of the OT stage, and Paul Miller’s direction, is, as always, on the money in terms of pacing.

i am just not sure this is as good a play as it, and others, think it is. Nothing wrong with taking Hamlet as your starting point, it is the greatest play ever written after all, but then I would have liked some surprises. Dramatic surprises, not guess the allusion. Mummy as queen bee, Flora having a bee named after her, Felix trying to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, the name Humble. And many, many more.

It won awards when premiered at the NT in 2001 with Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg in the lead roles and I can see why the luvvies loved it. There are some funny lines, even if you can see them coming, and the dialogue moves apace, even when the clunky disclosures come into play. There is a convincing prosthetic surprise and a sharp sight gag. The two main characters though eventually become irritating and the play collapses inward, black hole like, into its conceited core.

Waspish yes. Stinging no.

Poison at the Orange Tree theatre review ****

claire-price-and-zubin-varla-in-poison-by-lot-vekemans-orange-tree-theatre-photo-by-the-other-richard-1024x683

Poison

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th November 2017

Sometimes all you want from a play is for it to do exactly what it says on the packet. No sub-plots, symbolism, pointless characters, formal invention, stilted message. Just a powerful and involving story, well told. This is exactly what renowned Dutch playwright, Lot Vekemans, does in Poison. No wonder it has been translated and performed in multiple locations. Another terrific acquisition by Paul Miller and the Orange Tree team. Here it is translated by Rina Vergano who is the go-to for Dutch and Flemish texts.

Mind you this doesn’t make this a play that will have been easy to write, create or act in, and, in some ways, it isn’t easy to watch. Its subject, the loss of a child and the impact it has on a couple, is about as painful a subject as it is possible to imagine, for a “domestic” drama. Yet Ms Vekemans, takes us through all the ramifications of this dreadful event, with such a sure and sensitive hand that every line seems to ring true. A divorced couple meet in an unremarkable chapel building in a cemetery in France. (Blue carpet tiles, the designer’s catch-all for the banal, which Simon Daw wisely embraces here, along with those other staples, water-cooler and vending machine). We never get to know there names as, even after a separation of 9 years, they have no need to employ them. They were torn apart by the death of their son, Jakob, in a road accident, which eventually led to the journalist husband walking out on the millennial New Year’s Eve. They are here ostensibly to discuss what will happy to his body given that the land it lies in is contaminated. No one else turns up though (for reasons that become clear halfway through). They talk. There is pain, humour, tenderness, recrimination, jealousy, goading, misconception. In fact there is everything you might imagine a couple in this situation would put themselves through.

Paul Miller seems to have focussed on the “rediscoveries” in the last couple of years at the OT. Here he reminds us he can do contemporary plays standing on his head as well. Not literally. Like I say at the top there is no attempt to get directorially clever with the text here. There is no need. Movement, gesture, pauses, tensions, as well as words, everything worked.

This needed a couple of top drawer performances which, with Claire Price and Zubin Varla (who I have seen a bit of recently), is exactly what we got. Claire Price showed us a woman who could not move forward. Not because she was not trying nor because she was flawed in some dramatic sense. Just because she couldn’t accept what had happened. Which makes sense I think. She could be funny, she could be scathing, she could be analytical but always brittle and nervous underneath. Zubin Varla’s stilted ex husband had tried to moved on, (a new wife, a move to France from Holland), but was struggling with guilt for doing so. I swear I could hear him thinking at times. His intention to write a book about their bereavement is met with anger and incomprehension by her. The pain of their shared past infects this present but will continue into the future unless they can find some way to make it stop. There is some slight hope of redemption to this end at the end, but it is fragile.

Even beyond the bereavement itself though what is really, really striking about the play, in just 80 minutes, is the way it conjures up the whole skein of connections that a parted couple can recreate on meeting up, both comfortable and awkward, in movement, gestures and words. I was watching two real people, intimate strangers if you will, undergoing real experiences in pretty much real time. You’d think that would be easy to dramatise. It isn’t. This really was very, very good. It is one of those plays that gets better as you remember it.