The continuing success of Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy at the Gielgud is a puzzlement to some, but not to me. It's the kind of English play that they don't really write any more, though in truth they scarcely ever did: a play with an immensely smart head and a big, puzzled but so engaging heart. Imagine the best of recent Tom Stoppard, but with a more genuine sense of emotional wonder.
The most immediate effect of bringing in a new cast is to make one wonder whether Jones wrote the main part specifically with the original actor in mind. Adrian Scarborough gives a generally fine performance as Felix Humble, a theoretical astrophysicist working on string theory, and groping in his own life for the "eureka moment" which will bring his intellect and his emotions into harmony. However, in terms of mannerisms and delivery, Scarborough isn't so much playing Felix as playing Simon Russell Beale, his predecessor in the role. This is irrelevant, of course, if you haven't already seen Beale's Felix, but if you have, as I say, it makes you wonder.
Indeed, the production raises a similar question at an overall level. It's the kind of issue faced by all new casts and "resident" or "associate" directors in long-running productions: to what extent do you find your own path, and to what extent are you there simply to fit into someone else's footsteps and follow their notes?
Sophie Duval is conspicuously successful in the former approach as Rosie, the woman Felix left behind and (unknowingly) with child several years ago. Duval plays Rosie not as someone who still bears the scars from those earlier wounds beneath her hard new carapace, but rather as every inch the survivor, knowing, frank and subtly wry. Elsewhere, one begins to see conflicts. Anna Calder-Marshall as the scatterbrained but devoted family friend, Mercy, finds an affecting route to the core of the character's emotions but is also called upon to slightly overplay the daffy comedy. Similarly, William Gaunt's superb comic timing serves him a little too well in taking some of the edge of vicious unpleasantness off the vulgarian George Pye, whom Felix's recently widowed mother is about to remarry. What had been a delicate balance in John Caird's original production is now a little lumpy in the mix. This is most apparent with Maria Aitken's portrayal of Felix's mother Flora Humble. Aitken is excellent at the glacial, self-centred main theme of the character, less confident with the minor-key modulations which come increasingly to the fore.
All these comments, though, are principally by way of comparison. Jones's play remains a beautiful, intricately layered creation that simultaneously captivates the head and the heart.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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