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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Humble Boy

Charlotte Jones

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Humble Boy

Title: Humble Boy
Author: Charlotte Jones
Genre: Drama
Written: 2001
Length: 101 pages
Availability: Humble Boy - US
Humble Boy - UK
Humble Boy - Canada
  • Won Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play
  • First performed 9 August 2001 at the Royal National Theatre, in a production directed by John Caird, with Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : too much that's exaggerated or oversimplified, but often effective and touching

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 13/8/2001 Charles Spencer
Financial Times . . Ian Shuttleworth
The Guardian B 10/8/2001 Michael Billington
The Guardian B+ 7/2/2002 Michael Billington
The Independent . 13/2/2002 Paul Taylor
New York A 9/6/2003 John Simon
The NY Times . 20/5/2003 Bruce Weber
The Observer A 12/8/2001 Kate Kellaway
The Observer . 10/2/2002 Susannah Clapp
The Spectator . 16/2/2002 Toby Young
The Times B+ 13/8/2001 Benedict Nightingale
The Times A 6/2/2002 Benedict Nightingale
TLS A 17/8/2001 Hal Jensen
Variety . 31/8/2001 Matt Wolf
The Village Voice C- 3/6/2003 Michael Feingold

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but many quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(R)ich, original, intelligent, funny and touching, bursting with ideas and characters that you come to care about deeply. (...) At its best, this delightful play constructs the theatrical equivalent of a unified field theory (the scientific grail for which Felix is searching) uniting Ayckbourn and Stoppard." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "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. (...) Jones's play remains a beautiful, intricately layered creation that simultaneously captivates the head and the heart." - Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times

  • "The problem is that Jones jumps promiscuously from one to another and that the gap between the Cotswold antics she displays and the intellectual world she invokes is often ominously large (.....) But, beautifully acted as the play is, you feel that Jones's Cotswold comedy is slightly too frail a barque to carry so much intellectual cargo." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Jones has written an elegant variation on the traditional family play that perfectly suits the West End proscenium arch. (...) For all the talk about bees and black holes, however, it is as a son-and-mother story and a study in grief that Jones's play works best." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Simon Russell Beale is more talented than the material in Humble Boy, the play he is not just gracing but irradiating with his haunting and hilarious sense of humanity. His skill compensates for the largely technician idea of humanity in the piece itself." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "The parallels with Hamlet are not too heavily leaned on, and the play has wonderfully whimsical and pointed dialogue, sometimes deliberately wounding, more often ironically oblique. The humor is airily offbeat, the science not overinsistent, and the nomenclatural symbolism adds cheeky spice." - John Simon, New York

  • "This is a play full of sensational, giddying reproaches. (...) Charlotte Jones writes best here about missed emotions, people and events. But don't miss her play. Make a beeline for it." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "You can spend an enjoyable, if self-satisfied evening spotting the intricate, often witty parallels between the two plays. It's like solving a particularly intricate crossword puzzle to observe how everything dramatic, wild and disturbing in Shakespeare is made domestic, tamed and comic in Jones. (...) The Hamlet allusions glamorise the action of Humble Boy: they don't illuminate it. Neither do the astrophysical speculations." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "(T)he play isn't lacking in entertaining event either. But Jones isn't merely having or giving fun. Felix seems to be the intellectual at sea with matters of feeling. But he's wise enough to realise that, in life as in science, what seems to be a void can actually teem with warmth and excitement." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "When it deals with Felix's troubled family (...) it reminds you of Ayckbourn at his wryest. Moreover, Jones is as intellectually playful as Stoppard. (...) Whatever her influences, her dialogue is fresh, her observation original, humorous and humane." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "But if it looks like Hamlet, Humble Boy feels like one of the Romances: rebirth and renewal ultimately dissolve the anger and misery of the main scene. (...) This, and other bitterly fought exchanges, reveal Jones as a humorous writer. But she is more than that. Her handling of some big themes -- death, grief, suicide, immortality, love, the structure of the universe -- is deft, and though her figurative language is drawn from technical disciplines, we never feel that the characters have been pasted on to a thesis about Science and Nature." - Hal Jensen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Jones's purpose seems to have been to deflate Hamlet's Renaissance grandeur, making her version as banally contemporary as possible while still keeping it piquant and individual. But the banal and the piquant don't merge into anything distinctive; the result is like just another oddly dressed shopper at the local mall." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

  • "(I)t's an absolute corker. I can't recommend it highly enough -- no, not even that hoary old cliché is a high enough recommendation. It's so good that as I sat through it last Wednesday, I felt my breast swelling with patriotic pride. To think that an Englishwoman -- Charlotte Jones, as it happens -- could have written something so good ! She really is world-class." - Toby Young, Slate (13/2/2002)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Humble Boy Felix Humble returns home for the funeral of his father, and for the aftermath. He first appears on the scene alone, stumbling and stuttering, seeming not so much humble as retarded. In fact, he's a research fellow in theoretical physics, hoping soon to find "the mother of all theories, a unified field theory" -- though at the moment he's having trouble sorting it all out:

I've just run out of the maths. The equations don't exist for what I can already sense. The excitation modes -- the ringing has too many layers ... I can't ... hold all the notes, all the variables, all the harmonies in my head.
       Once Humble's mother, Flora, appears on the scene one begins to understand some of his troubles (at least in the social and personal departments, if not the scientific). She's beyond overbearing, and blames her misery squarely elsewhere: "I have been doubly unlucky in my life. To marry a biologist and give birth to a physicist."
       Other characters include the Humble's neighbour, George Pye (who is involved with Flora) and his daughter Rosie, whom Felix was once romantically involved with but then abandoned some seven years ago. (Unseen is Rosie's daughter, about seven -- and named Felicity .....) There's also family friend Mercy Lott (who pines for George). Oh, yes, and there's also the gardener, Jim. (And, yes, the names are all a bit to meaning-laden.)
       Humble Boy is also a take on Hamlet, with quite a few parallels (and some important differences). Felix is quite unsettled, and the question of being or not being does also arise. Significant in this regard (and a few others) is the presence (and absence) of very real bees -- as beekeeping was a hobby of the dead father.
       This is the sort of play in which unfortunate things happen with the cremated remains of dear dead dad, as it somewhat uneasily mixes some very broad comedy with a few subtler touches (there's quite a bit of poignancy to the play, but it doesn't always appear to best effect). The play shows the shift in relationships (between Felix and his mother, and his mother and George, especially) over the course of that summer. Ultimately the changes -- at least in Flora and Felix -- are almost convincing, but all of the conclusions seem a bit too simply reached. The characters are too exaggerated, almost cartoons much of the time, as Jones isn't able to fully develop them over the course of the play.
       There is a good deal of clever detail. Some of the comedy is very funny, and there are also a few deft touches and surprises. Rosie certainly has her moments, and gardener Jim, in particular, is well-presented.
       Humble Boy is an agreeable play -- there are enough laughs, some clever turns, a good bit of poignancy -- but not an entirely satisfactory one. Jones has written a good entertainment, but it isn't quite able to live up to all its lofty, serious aspirations.

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Humble Boy: Reviews: Charlotte Jones: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama under review

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About the Author:

       Charlotte Jones is a British playwright.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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