To be or not to be a comedy? That is the question posed by Humble Boy. This play, written by Charlotte Jones, opened last night as the latest production by the Adelaide Repertory Theatre.
The play (almost a play within a play) loosely follows the storyline of Hamlet in which Felix Humble (Nick Endenburg) returns home for the funeral of his father, James Humble, to discover his estranged mother, Flora Humble (Celine O’Leary) has become very close to George Pye (Christopher Leech). Felix is lost in his dream of pursuing a universal theory of everything through his Cambridge University work in Theoretical Astrophysics, which we discover is why he broke things off a long time prior with George’s daughter, Rosie Pye (Phoebe Wilson).
The drama unfolds in the garden at the Humbles’ country home, where only the shell remains of James’ beekeeping and we discover that the introverted Felix has fled his father’s funeral, supposedly overwhelmed by the occasion but in fact he has been disturbed by the severing of the nature of things; the removal of his father’s bees, and the newly-discovered dalliance between George and his mother.
The set was simple and adorned by lawn, bee hive, beds of roses, and an apple tree, which becomes pivotal to some of Felix’s story. Isaac Newton, anybody?
With the gardener (Brian Knott) using real dirt and raking leaves, and with an ash-like substance in the urn, hilariously used by Flora’s “friend”, Mercy Lott (Rhonda Grill), there is a grounded realism to the staging of this play, which sits in stark contrast with decision of director (Kerrin White) to tease out eccentricities and affectations of his lead character, Felix. For example, Felix is played at time with a very feverish, distracted, and possessed manner. The theatricality of this Hamletesque exuberance stands apart from the drawing room realism of the rest of the play, imperilling our suspension of disbelief. But, then again, such is the nature of Jones’ writing, that we are tossed hither and yon between different styles and threads as we traverse the fractured landscape of a family home post-bereavement.
On opening night there was some disparity in volume between the players, and some cues were a little loose, sapping a little energy at times, but when this ensemble clicks, as it did increasingly throughout the night, the audience gets to experience the sharp and layered wit of Jones’ work, with actors who are poised and pleasing. And there were many waves of hearty laughter, indeed.
In fact, there were also many nourishing moments of chemistry between the players. When Endenburg is at his most centred, dressed in cricket whites, his character bowls up some surprising barbs and questions, much like a dangerous bowler on a turning wicket. There is joy to be had as the other characters squirm about Endenburg’s Felix, and equally so as he absorbs the slings and arrows from O’Leary, Leech, and Wilson. Jones stopped short of including a physical, Shakespearian sword fight, instead, allowing her characters to fence against each other with words.
Throughout the play, there are many sweet lines that amplify the story’s parallels with Hamlet, from Rosie’s exasperated query about whether Felix had expected her get herself to a nunnery after they broke up, to Flora’s exclamation at the final dinner that there is no way Felix was going to turn this into a tragedy!
Humble Boy is billed as a bittersweet comedy and it is, albeit with a sting in its tale. It is a night of clever, pleasant theatre.
Humble Boy, Adelaide Repertory Theatre, Arts Theatre, November 18-27, 2021. Photo: Richard Parkhill.