21 August 2001: The Lady

Humble Boy

A Wonderful play, Humble Boy is right up there with high offerings such as Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Copenhagen. Written by a new, young playwright, this is still Hamlet, but not as we know it.

Director John Caird has taken the four principals of his current Simon Russell Beale Hamlet, added Diana Rigg and Marcia Warren, and come up with a latter-day variant on Elsinore in an English country garden blited by bees.

We are transported off to the Cotswolds, into an often hilariously dysfunctional family where the father has died, mother is about to remarry, the son is suicidal and the Ophelia figure has become a one-parent mother on a motorbike. Yet the marvel of Humble Boy is that it is so much more than another Stoppardian word-game: it harks back to all those "English Chekov" plays of the 1950s wherein a middle-class family would fall gracefully apart at the seams, giggling as they collapsed into the shrubbery.

Humble Boy is about bee-keeping, the chaos theory, black holes, theoretical astrophysics and the sheer, incestuous bloody boredom of English middle-class country life. It is about people not waving but drowning, about a man's ashes being served up in the soup, about domestic disaster and an ex-bunnygirl with myxamatosis.

Diana Rigg and Russell Beale give the two best-judged, serio-comic, edgy (dare I, in this context, say waspish?) performances in town, with the supporting quartet of Denis Quilley, William Gaunt, Cathryn Bradshaw and Marcia Warren, buzzing close at their heels.

Humble Boy is what the National Theatre was built to premiere. It may well do Trevor Nunn's closing months more good than all his desperate attempts to demolish the structure of the building from within. Read on!

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