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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 482-485
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Nightingale And Chase
Humble Boy. By Charlotte Jones. Royal National Theatre, Cottesloe Theatre, London. 24 October 2001.
Nightingale and Chase. By Zinnie Harris. Royal Court Theatre, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London. 27 October 2001.
During the mid-1990s, newspaper critics trumpeted a second renaissance of British writing because of the critical, commercial, and media generating successes of Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh, Patrick Marber, Conor McPherson, Joe Penhall, and Mark Ravenhill. While these six received the focus of the media's praise and glare, especially in the case of Kane, theatrical inroads were also being made by more than twenty-five other young writers, including Samuel Adamson, David Eldridge, Judy Upton, Phyllis Nagy, and Simon Bent. The prominence of new plays by young writers though was not merely a blip. Instead, almost a decade later, the pool of burgeoning writers is still fresh and expanding. Two of the more recent notable additions to the fold are Charlotte Jones, who [End Page 482] gained notice for Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis and Zinnie Harris, whose Further than the Furthest Thing caught the eye of many. During the fall of the 2001 London theatre season, both Jones and Harris had their, to date, most prominent productions.
Of the two, Charlotte Jones found herself in the more enviable position, as Humble Boy premiered at the Cottesloe Theatre, featuring a stellar cast of Simon Russell Beale, flush from the success of playing Hamlet for the National Theatre, and Diana Rigg. Because of the casting of Beale and Rigg, both of whom were featured prominently in the ad campaign, as well as the small seating capacity of the Cottesloe, Humble Boy became one of the most difficult tickets to acquire in London, even though no one really knew what the play was about.
In the National Theatre booklet Humble Beginnings, which details the rehearsal process of the play, much is made of Humble Boy's connection to William Shakespeare's Hamlet (besides Beale's own stint as the prince). In an initial rundown of the play's characters the similarities are certainly evident: Felix Humble, the talented but troubled son who cannot let go of his father's memory or ashes; Flora Humble, the fashionable but self-conscious mother who has been having an extended affair with a close family friend; George Pye, the close family friend who cannot wait to take his place officially in Flora's life; Rosie Pye, the spurned love interest of Felix who is now a nurse and mother to their seven-year-old daughter; Mercy Lott, the dotty older character who provides not only much of the play's comic relief but also some of its wisdom; and finally, a ghost who haunts the garden. However, Shakespeare and Hamlet do not immediately leap to one's mind while watching the play. Instead two other prolific, often produced and popular British playwrights emerge in one's thoughts: Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn.
Drawing upon Stoppard's technique of applying multiple layers of seemingly random events, people, movements, and philosophies, Jones offers a play with inklings of the aforementioned Hamlet, bees, horticulture, theoretical physics (specifically, superstring theory), anosmeia, swing music, and the elusiveness as well as the playfulness of language. Whereas Stoppard's combination of Romanticism, chaos theory, academic bickering, dueling and Capability Brown in Arcadia is effortless, similar combinations in Humble Boy feel forced. At one point [End Page 483] Felix explains to Mercy his research into the creation of the universe (the complex explanation is deftly performed by Beale), later a gardener provides a horticultural lesson, and on occasion Flora's loss of smell sporadically crops into the conversation. Individually, each element works, but once these elements begin to build up and jostle against one another, they provide a jumble of arbitrary ideas rather than forming a cohesive pattern. Unlike Stoppard's gift at drawing together so many deceptively tenuous strings, Jones's attempt leaves them untied. However, the play is on more secure footing with the Ayckbourn...