Director: Melly Still
Based on the book by Jamila Gavin, adapted for stage by Helen Edmundson.
Those who perform at London’s National Theatre are accustomed to performing in front of a full house, so all credit to the cast for performing their first preview as though the place was packed. Given that the show doesn’t officially open until November 15th the audience was sizable but quite restless, which given how young most of the cast were makes their professionalism all the more admirable. Particularly of note was Akiya Henry, although she only appeared in the second half she really made her presence felt, without stealing focus from the others. For such a diminutive person her command of the stage, especially when alone, was impressive, and she was powerfully moving without being melodramatic. All of the young cast members managed to avoid melodrama, something that cannot be said for all their adult counterparts. Paul Ritter was brilliantly nasty as Otis Gardiner the Coram Man, and Bertie Carvel was excellent as the grown-up Alexander, but Eve Matheson was rather too hysterical as Mrs Millcote. She did not manage to pitch the dramatic moments right; they were overplayed and unnecessarily frantic given that they did not greatly contribute to the play as a whole.
For what is ostensibly a children’s show, ‘Coram Boy’ was quite spectacularly unpleasant in places, and not in a gleefully gruesome way that might be enjoyed by some children. The discovery of numerous dead babies buried in the woods was fully described on stage using puppets to represent the babies –and bits of babies- that were exhumed. While I appreciate that children can enjoy the macabre and being scared, especially in the odd unreality of a theatre, the acting and action is so well done and so convincing that the National might have problems marketing this as family Christmas entertainment. Disney it isn’t. The other problem with offering this as a family show is that is doesn’t have a traditionally happy ending, I won’t spoil the story, but even though this production has tidied up the ending a little it is still relatively sad. What was unsentimental in the book has become rather too sugary on stage, perhaps as compensation for the unexpectedly nasty scenes in the first half. The impact of the return of the lost son to his family is lessened by Edmundson’s changing of preceding events –much of the suspense is removed.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s excellent story ‘Coram Boy,’ directed by Melly Still, stayed mostly true to Gavin’s plot, even retaining snatches of the original dialogue. Edmundson has naturally changed certain points to make the story work better on stage, but while I understand the writer’s need to make her presence felt on the story, some of the details that she did choose to change struck a rather odd note, making the reasonably complicated plot harder to follow rather than clarifying things. For example, two characters that are killed off rather violently in the book were allowed to live in Edmundson’s adaptation. If she were generally softening the nastiness of the story to make it more accessible I could understand this decision, but given that there are far worse moments that have not been culled and that she has actually made some scenes more unpleasant it seemed a redundant move. For those who have read the book it is vaguely irritating, and for those who haven’t it must seem rather farcical that this particular character is dramatically stabbed but is apparently unscathed in the next scene. Personally, anything that shatters the fragile suspension of disbelief that is the theatre, whether is someone rustling sweet wrappers or a jarringly odd moment on stage, is intensely annoying. Fortunately, this moment came right at the end of the play, and the rest of it was great.
The music that accompanied the action was excellent, a live choir and string septet greatly heightened the atmosphere. Handel (Nicholas Tizzard) is both a character in the play and the composer of the ‘background’ music, I use ‘background’ for lack of a better word because the music is integral both to the story and the atmosphere. Strategic use of music from the Messiah was at times truly tragic; ‘Unto us a child is born’ while babies are being unearthed was incredibly powerful. Its recurrence throughout the play fitted excellently into the plot and served to re-emphasise the loss that mothers felt when they had to give up their children to the seemingly benevolent ‘Coram Man’ in the vain hope that he would deliver them safely to the hospital.
The Coram Hospital, named for its founder Thomas Coram, was established in 1739 to take care of some of the waifs and strays of London. It became an urban legend of its time, a place where unwanted babies could grow up safely and get some education, eventually being apprenticed out to honest respectable tradesmen. However, the stigma of illegitimacy called for secrecy when scared mothers entrusted their offspring to strangers in the hope of giving them a chance in life, which meant that it was an easy system to abuse. Paul Ritter’s sinister Coram Man exploits desperate mothers for his own gain. The play tells the story of 2 sets of friends, and Alexander (Anna Madeley), cathedral choir boys, and later Aaron, Alexander’s son (also Anna Madeley) and Toby (Akiya Henry), Coram boys, caught up in the deceit, secrecy and betrayal of estrangement and illegitimacy. ‘Coram Boy’ is a romp through London and Gloucester, taking in murder, music, hanging, dancing, love, betrayal, evil and angels, via the slave trade, Handel’s Messiah and lots of small boys (played by girls).