Ali Gosling reviews the ‘tragically funny and heart-warming’ Humble Boy at the Guild of Students.
As we sit waiting for the play to begin, the Amos Room of the Guild is filled with the sounds of a British summer’s day; chirping birds, the buzz of bees and rustling plants. A gardener, Jim (although later revealed as a much more significant character), walks around the set, gently tending to the plants and immersing us in the world of Felix Humble.
The foundations of the plot of Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy were taken from Hamlet, yet made very English within the setting of the Cotswolds. This sentiment was continued by the Infinity Stage Company crew with a beautifully quaint set; the actors shared the stage with pots and baskets of real flowers, a garden bench, and a beehive. The Edenic garden as the backdrop to difficult themes of death, grief, and family strains suggests the presence of a serpent amongst the seemingly faultless garden; a clever microcosm of the life of the Humbles.
However it was the characters of Humble Boy themselves that undoubtedly (and literally) took centre stage. Matthew Kennedy was superb in his role as the deeply complicated Felix Humble, a Cambridge fellow studying for a PhD in Physics. Kennedy was clearly successfully directed, evoking sympathy from the audience for Felix, whose argumentative and over-analytical manner could easily instead be an irritation. His stutters and intense explanations of superstring theory were so naturally done that there was a strong sentiment among the audience of wanting Felix to succeed, both in his scientific research and his fragmented family life, following the death of his beekeeper father.
Katy Owens as Felix’s mother Flora importantly added to the crux of familial conflicts throughout the play. Her choice to marry George Pye, whose loud, rather grotesque nature was captured perfectly by Charlie Harris, acts as the cause of family grievance alongside James Humble’s death. Owens’ reaction to her late husband naming a new species of bee after her is a poignantly happy moment in the play.
The dynamic between Felix and Rosie (rather confusingly George Pye’s daughter) was also a powerful aspect. Played by Charlotte Haigh, Rosie’s playfully seductive interaction with Kennedy onstage established a complicated history between the two, later shown by the revelation that Felix unknowingly has a daughter with Rosie; his reaction displaying both his delight and fear at the news.
The most pivotal point in the play was the breakdown of Mercy, Flora’s unappreciated and slightly screw-loose friend, brilliantly played by Lucy Porter. Her attempt to say grace at the disastrous family lunch, whereby she accidentally used James’ ashes as the seasoning for her homemade gazpacho, was deeply troubling yet hilarious, highlighting the knock-on effect of the breakdown of family on the most likeable character in the entirety of the play.
The real shock of the play was the revelation that Jim, the seemingly insignificant gardener played by Cameron Williams, who comforts Felix when his father’s bees are taken away, was in fact James Humble after all this time. Although rather awkward in his stage presence throughout the play, Williams’ final moment with Owens as a means of closure for his death justifiably brought tears from the audience. The response to this final scene summarised the success of Rebecca Vernon and Lucy Price in directing a play that humorously tackles delicate family issues against the ironic backdrop of an idyllic English countryside, resulting in a performance that was both tragically funny and heart-warming.