Humble Boy review – serpents and supersymmetry collide in a Cotswold Eden

Orange Tree, Richmond
Astrophysics and simmering family tensions come to the boil in this superb revival of Charlotte Jones’s household drama

Charlotte Jones’s prizewinning play, to which I gave a cautious welcome on its first appearance at the National in 2001, emerges strongly in Paul Miller’s superb revival. It’s far superior to the earlier, starrier production. Miller reminds us that a piece whose subjects range from astrophysics to apiculture is rooted in the tensions of family life.

Selina Cadell and Christopher Ravenscroft in Humble Boy
‘One of the best pieces of acting you will see anywhere’ … Selina Cadell as Mercy with Christopher Ravenscroft as Jim. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Hamlet is the template. Felix, a Cambridge research fellow, returns to his Cotswold family home after his father’s death to find that his mother, Flora, is contemplating re-marriage. The irony is that, while the unhappy Felix’s personal life is fragmenting, he is seeking a supersymmetry that will unite quantum mechanics and gravity.

Science is only part of the fabric of this play about families. There is even an Ayckbourn-like alfresco lunch that shows how mealtimes are a source of mayhem: not only does the attempted reconciliation between Felix and his putative stepfather backfire but a guest who originally seemed a comic figure – a Christian solitary called Mercy – becomes pivotal. The moment when Mercy, in attempting to say grace, reveals the emotional confusion of herself and everyone else becomes, in Selina Cadell’s performance, one of the best pieces of acting you will see anywhere.

All the performances are perfectly in key. Jonathan Broadbent plays Felix as a man steeped in theoretical science but unable to cope with life, Belinda Lang brings out the cruelty of his appearance-obsessed mother and – even if I find it hard to credit she would contemplate marriage to a loud-mouthed vulgarian – Paul Bradley plays her neighbour with the right lascivious bombast. Simon Daw’s garden set also suggests a Cotswold Eden filled not only with bees but with hidden serpents.

• At Orange Tree, Richmond, until 14 April. Box office: 020-8940 3633.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
While the Sun Shines review – fresh-as-paint Rattigan revival
Superb performances power the ingeniously plotted story of a young earl’s marriage to the daughter of an impoverished duke

Michael Billington

17, Jun, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Cougar review – breathless scenes of sexual power games in luxury hotels
This unsettling portrait of a world and a relationship in crisis breezes through 80 scenes in 75 minutes

Michael Billington

06, Feb, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Double Dealer review – sly schemers, randy wives and foolish cuckolds
Selina Cadell stages an enterprising production of Congreve’s convoluted restoration comedy

Michael Billington

12, Dec, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
Dealing With Clair review – Martin Crimp's fierce swipe at pious yuppies
This revival gains an eerie topicality, yet its ingenious study of moneyed hypocrisy makes it truly timeless

Michael Billington

31, Oct, 2018 @11:07 AM

Article image
The Sugar Syndrome review – Lucy Prebble's dark encounters still connect
Oscar Toeman directs a striking revival of the 2003 play about the relationship between a teenage girl and a paedophile

Arifa Akbar

28, Jan, 2020 @9:30 PM

Article image
Athol Fugard's apartheid dramas still bite in our divided age
New productions of A Lesson from Aloes and Blood Knot forcefully portray a world of claustrophobia, surveillance and the subtleties of racial exclusion

Arifa Akbar

13, Mar, 2019 @1:56 PM

Article image
Out of Water review – Zoe Cooper's coastal drama is captivating
The nature of identity is explored with compassion in Cooper’s play which features brilliant performances

Miriam Gillinson

02, May, 2019 @7:40 PM

Article image
The Mikvah Project review – bathing, banter and burning desire
Josh Azouz’s play explores the passion between two men who go to the same synagogue but it lacks tension and tenderness

Arifa Akbar

05, Mar, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Solaris review – love and loneliness collide in best take yet on sci-fi classic
David Greig follows Tarkovsky and Soderbergh with this bold, rewarding take on Stanisław Lem’s novel about a sentient planet speaking to its visitors

Mark Fisher

15, Sep, 2019 @10:24 AM

Article image
All I See Is You review – smitten but bruised as love and law collide
Set in the 60s, the hidden histories of men up against repressive homosexuality laws have an intense emotional force in Kathrine Smith’s production

Catherine Love

28, May, 2019 @10:00 AM