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OTG's first production in 2011 was Humble Boy at the the Oxford Playhouse. Reviews appeared in Oxford Times, Daily Information, Theatreworld Internet Magazine and Henley Standard.
picture from the performance

So that's what is meant by pot bellied...

A gallery of pictures from the production is available to view.

OXFORD TIMES - James Benefield

Just as Tom Stoppard wove mathematics into his 1993 play Arcadia, so playwright Charlotte Jones attempts to stitch theoretical physics into the fabric of her 2001 piece, Humble Boy. And while it’s not a total success, it is hard not to be engaged by this production.

The person talking physics is 30-something Felix Humble (Phillip Cotterill), a Cambridge graduate still obsessed with string theory but now primarily working behind the counter in a charity shop. He’s back at his family home in the Cotswolds following the death, and funeral, of his father. While there, he discovers some startling events that have unfolded since he left home, including that his mother, Flora (Cathy Oakes), is having an affair with local businessman George Pye (Joseph Kenneway). Felix also rediscovers who his father was — a man famous for his beekeeping as much as his character. From the setting of the family’s pretty back garden, to the climax of an al fresco dinner party, the play is a relatively gentle night out — the only seasoning being the odd swear word and raised voice. We are presented with a series of dysfunctional relationships and Charlotte Jones sets herself the challenge of resolving and exploring over two-and-a-half hours, rather than structuring her play fully around the plot points. There’s the Hamlet-like mother and son relationship, the best friend who becomes more assertive as the play continues and a shock revelation or two to keep the audience paying attention.

It’s a device that does backfire when the characters don’t quite ring true. The case in point is Felix — Phillip Cotterill is given some pretty convoluted, overwritten lines and visibly has trouble doing anything with them. With extensive expositions about physics, writer Charlotte Jones is clearly pleased with her own research, to the detriment of both the character and the play. Felix is an obsessive man, but Jones writes the part to death. Characterisation elsewhere is equally as laboured — we know businessman George is an earthy sort as he swears a lot, while we know that Flora Humble is unhappy as she can’t stop criticising others.

Thankfully, the acting, and the well-delivered humour, engage. While Cotterill never quite nails Felix, he gets excellent support from all around him. In particular, Cathy Oakes’s mother lingers in the memory — it’s a measured, but waspish, performance. The play’s humour is surprising but warm and genuine, and the cast manage the necessary comic timing well. This is a flawed play, but an engaging production.


DAILY INFORMATION - Liz Buckle (Daily Info reviewer)

I won’t be sleeping fitfully whilst my mind works to extrapolate the deeper meanings of the plot of Humble Boy, and I will not need to expend too much mental energy attempting to understand the clever subtext, because the themes and references are explicit and the text, whilst at times clever and witty, says what it says and the meaning is single layered and clear. Humble Boy, much like the crematorial ash-laced gazpacho making a comic appearance in the second act, does not bear out reheating.

The play is however, unlike the soup, best served warm, which in this performance, it certainly was. The dysfunctional family dynamics between the all-at-sea, stuttering son and his recently widowed, emotionally stunted mother, exacerbated by the re-emergence of a long since jilted girlfriend and the revelation of a long term lover, are played out comically and poignantly by turns. Whilst for the most part this is a light hearted, at times farcical portrayal of deeply flawed, but essentially sympathetic characters, there are moments, particularly towards the end, when those human frailties are treated with a quiet dignity, which seemed more real, quite moving, and more rewarding to watch.

Mercy, the dowdy friend, utters endless inanities, commits the most deplorable of gaffs, and induces exasperation and pity from characters and audience alike. Then there’s the gardener, who, for the most part occupies the physical space around the edges of the stage, offering softly spoken words of seemingly little importance, until his full significance emerges in the revelatory closing scene. His is the only unaffected character, and for that reason, is the most likeable of all.

It may be rather dismissive to suggest that Caroline Jones’s script does not inspire more contemplation or merit further analysis. I was aware that it was intelligent and considered and that the jokes and puns, the clever plays on words and allusions were all there, carefully placed to be best appreciated. However, the actual delivery of those witty jokes let them down ever so slightly at times. I enjoyed all the performances, and found that the characters, whilst exaggerated, remained just about believable, but that precision art of comic timing was a fraction of a second off the mark at certain points when I felt there was more of a laugh due.

But maybe raising a gentle and knowing chuckle was always the intention, rather than eliciting guffaws and rolling in the aisles. The themes after all, are not naturally mirth inducing: Death, grief, the march of time, lost love, infidelity – not to mention theoretical physics, horticulture and entomology. Perhaps then it is a tribute to the writer, director and actors that such weighty topics, when treated humorously but not mockingly and aired on a stage dressed pleasantly as a summer garden, complete with a real lawn and illuminated beehive, result in an enjoyable, amusing, but unchallenging experience.



There was much to admire in this production of ‘Humble Boy’, a lively though hardly original treatment of that perenially popular theme, the dysfunctional middle-class family, in this specific case with father lately dead, and mother and son in a stand-off. The ironically named Flora Humble, a blend of Gertrude and Arkadina, was effectively played by Cathy Oakes, her hand gestures and facial expressions in particular conveying her exasperation with the inferior creatures around her. Joanna Matthews gave a striking performance as Mercy Lott, the much-put-upon ‘friend’ of Flora. Fiddling nervously with her handbag, her eyes frequently downcast in fear, timing her timid lines to perfection, she created a figure of genuine, touching pathos. Philip Cotterill as Felix Humble, the Hamlet/Konstantin figure who is such an embarrassment to his worldly and glittering mother, had a difficult role to play, and made a creditable effort with lines which were sometimes lacking in either pace or depth. His stammer was moderately convincing, but perhaps needed a stronger edge of desperation. Joseph Kennaway, as the evil stepfather-to-be, had an easier task, and projected the brash, energetic vulgarity of his character with considerable success. Alex Reid, as his daughter Rosie, a sturdier Ophelia, showed striking stage presence and brought out the comic potential of her lines with real relish, as well as developing the more serious side of her role – Rosie’s tenacity and resilience – very successfully. Andrew Whiffin, as Jim the gardener, had little to say but displayed a fine, delicate sense of timing in the delivery of his lines. The whole piece was an interwoven ensemble effort that showed an impressive professionalism in the acting team.

The garden set, with its trellises and patchily growing grass, was pleasing enough, and the soothing purple glow of evening was a particularly felicitous lighting effect. Many of the costumes were well-chosen, in particular the shimmering cocktail dress worn by Flora (who clearly finds the sartorial restraint of funeral attire a real bore) and the flashy blazer (all gold buttons and double-breasted ostentation) of George. There was a problem, however, with the paunch of Felix; it was simply unconvincing in shape and distracted one’s attention during significant speeches. The absence of any soil or grime on Jim the gardener may well have been intended to emphasise the fact he is not a gardener, but I feel that little would have been lost, and maybe something gained, by creating that initial illusion. The central prop, the urn, was an effective focus for much of the action, though some of the humour it generated could only be described as second-rate.

This was an interesting evening. The first act contains some energetic and effective sequences, though there are moments when the dialogue flags, and an injection of pace is much needed. Where the whole play partially fails is in its attempt to shift from the realistic to the transcendental in the second act. The first part of Act 2, where drink unleashes a storm of repressed emotions, is very successful, but the final section, with the return of the gardener, is not. The writer does prepare us for this change of key, but the structure and characterisation of the play are too frail to sustain such a climactic emotional weight.



Why use just one theme when you can cram in dozens? Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones is a reversal of the usual maxim that less is more, but if it's done well it works.

The Oxford Theatre Guild have made sure it's done well in a revival at the Playhouse this week.

Humble Boy is a gentle piece with few pressure points but a slow and steady rythm which grips from the beginning. It takes in string theory, black holes, crudity, sex, fighting families, treachery, deception, belly laughs, subtlety, spiritualism, Greek mythology and a host of other ideas which it somehow blends into a seamless narrative.

If there's a central theme it's evinced by the other-wordly main character, Felix, played to near perfection by Phillip Cotterill. This is a man who sought the answers to life firstly in the stars, then at the absolute furthest end of the Physics continuum in string theory.

Felix's selfish egocentric and shallow mother cares little for him, or his late father, so he must find his solace in the big issues rather than the straightforward bonds which normally unite families.

All of these nuances are brought out by some sure-footed direction from Simon Tavener. He has a talented and able cast to work with and Joseph Kenneway playing George Pye also deserves mention.

The Oxford Theatre Guild is a non-professional company but has such a high standard - it must have for the Playhouse to allow it to perform there - that they can and should be judged with the regular fare at the theatre.

So, at times this was a fully professional production, but perhaps the movement and bearing of a couple of characters needs attention before they too can be included in those high achieving ranks.

But these are minor quibbles in a show which zips through despite being close to two and a half hours long. The pace never flags and the piece is absolutely convincing.


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