In London: comedy, melody, psychiatry

Two new plays and a revival of 'My Fair Lady' light up Britain's stages.


October 07, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

LONDON -- A domestic comedy that combines honeybees with Hamlet, a rollicking revival of one of the best-loved musicals of the 1950s, and an excoriating indictment of psychiatry.

Three of the biggest hits in London exemplify the variety of fare currently on British stages. And since the two nonmusicals are by relative newcomers, they bode well for the future. American audiences can look for all three eventually to make their way to the States.

Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy, a modern-day, Hamlet-inspired comedy at the Royal National Theatre, stars Diana Rigg -- casting guaranteed to produce results at the box office, even in a work by a little-known playwright. But this beautifully crafted play, with an emotional range that stretches from hilarity to near tragedy, is a star in its own right.

Felix Humble, a 35-year-old Cambridge astrophysicist, returns home for the funeral of his father, an entomologist, only to discover that his mother: 1) has gotten rid of his father's beloved bees, and 2) has been having an affair. In addition to this second development, the Hamlet parallels include Felix's former girlfriend, who suffered a breakdown after they split up, and the appearance of a fatherly gardener, who, for most of the play, is visible only to Felix.

Jones wrote the role of Felix with Simon Russell Beale in mind. A pudgy, middle-aged actor, Russell Beale won rave reviews for his portrayal of Hamlet in the National Theatre's 2000 production of the Shakespeare tragedy, which toured the United States earlier this year and which, like Humble Boy, was directed by John Caird.

Russell Beale may have been an uncharacteristically older, out-of-shape Hamlet, but those attributes are central to Felix, a plump, rumpled man who is the physical antithesis of his meticulous, stylish mother, Flora (Rigg). Russell Beale's Felix fights to overcome a nervous stammer; Rigg's Flora speaks with a tongue so cutting, it's surprising she doesn't bloody her lips.

Flora may be fastidious about her appearance, but she doesn't seem to have noticed that her garden, where the play is set, is wildly overgrown -- a metaphor for a household also out of control. As designed by Tim Hatley in the National's intimate Cottesloe Theatre, the set positions theatergoers on three sides of a patio bordered by tall grasses that rise up at the terraced back of the stage to surround a giant beehive. The effect is that of observing wildlife in its natural habitat.

What goes on in this habitat is characterized by biting, irreverent humor (much of it having to do with Felix's father's ashes), and more than a few instances of utter cruelty. The ease with which Jones juggles these contrasting tones contributes significantly to the play's entertainment value.

In the end, Humble Boy is a coming-of-age story about a son who reaches maturity at long last and also mends a seemingly irreparable rift with his mother. It's a hard-won, deeply satisfying resolution to a play brimming with complex characters, magnificently realized by a superlative six-member cast.

Revival of a classic

Although director Trevor Nunn's revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady features new orchestrations and other tweaking, it doesn't entirely re-envision this classic musical. But the lavish production mines numerous fresh delights from the familiar material.

Chief among them is the choreography of Matthew Bourne, best known for his gender-bending rendition of Swan Lake. In My Fair Lady, his best work is showcased in the two large chorus numbers that focus on boozy, working-class Alfred P. Doolittle. When contrasted with the aristocrats' deliberately stiff racetrack and ball scenes, the revelry that surrounds Doolittle (Dennis Waterman) proves that it's the lower classes, not their presumed betters, who know how to enjoy themselves.

In "With a Little Bit of Luck," Bourne borrows a chapter from Stomp as several of Doolittle's exuberant cronies dance with one foot hooked in the handle of a trash can lid. This makes for a louder rendition than composer Loewe may have imagined, but the props are an appropriate choice considering Doolittle's occupation as a dustman.

Equally high-spirited is "Get Me to the Church on Time," in which Doolittle celebrates his last hurrah as a bachelor. In this case, Waterman and his buddies literally dance the night away as designer Anthony Ward's swift-moving scenery takes them from a bar to a music hall (where Waterman joins in with the showgirls) to the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

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