When I was 10 I started playing the viola, and had the immense good fortune to play in several of the many orchestras in my hometown of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. For reasons I still can’t exactly explain, that particular town has a long and still-thriving musical tradition, and the ‘jewel in the crown’ is the world-renowned ‘Huddersfield Choral Society’ which, at Christmas each year, performs Handel’s ‘Messiah’. However, since tickets are sold by ballot (YES, they really are so much in demand) I’ve never actually been to a performance.
Even if I can’t get to hear ‘Messiah’ in Yorkshire, at least I managed to get a snippet of it in the National’s new production ‘Coram Boy’. After some initial curtain calls at the end of the play, the whole cast were led by the musical director (dressed in period costume) in the singing of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah. It was a splendid end to a splendid evening of theatre, which had music running through it as a central theme.
‘Coram Boy’, which is adapted by Helen Edmundson, is based on the novel by Jamila Gavin, and tackles some of the issues involving children in the Georgian period in England. Set between 1742 and 1750, it highlights the immense problems faced by women who became pregnant with illegitimate children, and the way they were exploited by the unscrupulous in order to avoid social shame.
On entering the auditorium, my first inclination was to leave, because well over half of all the plays I’ve seen this year have used smoke effect either during the performance or before the start. It almost seems like someone has been flogging off a job-lot of smoke powder to all the theatres in the West End! Still, I decided to grin and bear it. But when the show started I found myself almost totally confused during the first 15 minutes or so. The introductory scenes involve a cathedral choir and various other strange characters surrounding the acting area. But these scenes are a device to draw the audience into the plot, and as the jig-saw starts to piece itself together and one begins to understand the relationships between the large cast of characters, we are gradually spell-bound almost like moths to a light.
‘Coram Boy’ has a pretty complex plot revolving around the Ashbrook family. Lord Ashbrook is a traditional landowner from Gloucestershire who rules his household pretty much with a rod of iron. His son, Alexander loves music and attends the Cathedral school where he hopes to remain to further his musical studies after his voice has broken. However, his father is against this as he wants his son to join him in managing the family estates. The housekeeper at the Ashbrook household, Mrs Lynch, unbeknown to the family, has a job on the side – helping dispose of unwanted babies to the ‘Coram man’, Otis Gardiner. However, Otis doesn’t take the babies to the Coram Hospital for Foundlings, but smothers them and gets his son, Mishak, to bury them.
Unable to comply with his father’s wishes, Alexander runs off to find his future in music, but only after fathering a child with Melissa, daughter of the Ashbrook’s cousin. Melissa and her mother seek the help of Mrs Lynch in the birth of Melissa’s illegitimate child. Mrs Lynch tells Melissa that the baby was still born, but Mishak revives the child and takes him to the foundling hospital.
The first act has a kind of gothic quality about it with some gruesome scenes where the bodies of babies are both buried, and later discovered. It has a Dickensian kind of feel to it, in keeping with previous productions at the National such as Nicholas Nickelby. And there’s a realistic hanging scene when Otis Gardiner is tried for his crimes and sentenced to death. But there’s a definite change of atmosphere and pace in the second half, during which the Ashbrook family are reunited and the story reaches its climax. Though the plot moves at lightening speed, it’s a pretty stunning second half with some superb effects. As one woman commented to her friends on the way out, “That was fabulous”.
I always like the live music in National productions, and here it’s a quite exceptional feast of delights, lending a highly atmospheric and sometimes chilling quality to the spectacle. There’s fine playing by the substantial orchestra, backed-up by superb singing from a choir as well as from the entire cast. The juveniles in the show took up the challenge of acting and singing (in what must be an incredibly daunting venue to perform) like ducks to water – no hint of nerves from these accomplished young performers. My only reservation was that Anna Madeley, who plays young Alexander in the first half, looked too old to be playing the eight-year old Aaron in the second half. Still, by the end of the play she’d managed to more or less convince us.
Apart from the smoke effects, the design (by Ti Green and director Melly Still) while being economical, manages to feature some impressive devices. A cathedral organ stands proudly aloft at the rear of the stage, and the scene where Mishak and the children are fighting for their lives in the sea is stunningly engineered using plastic sheets and flying effects. And the dolls that are used in the first half to represent the babies being smothered and buried were a mixture of frightening realism, tinged with freakishness. Scary!
There was a rousing reception from the audience at the end of Melly Still’s carefully crafted production, and deservedly so. It’s a fine piece of work with great singing and acting from all of the cast. In particular, Jack Tarlton gave a very fine performance, throwing himself at the stage as the painfully tormented Meshak, and Ruth Gemmell turned-in a finely honed characterisation of realistic and contemptuous ruthlessness in the part of Mrs Lynch. But the playing and singing from the entire cast really is of an exceptionally high standard throughout.
‘Coram Boy’ is an engrossing and gripping production, which not only make us aware of the plight of children in those hideous days of Georgian England, but reminds us that they are still the subject of immense cruelty and terrible exploitation in many parts of the world today. And Christmas is just the time of year for us to start doing something more positive to bring those injustices to an end.
What the popular press had to say.....
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Helen Edmundson's adaptation does full justice to the dark power of the original, while also transforming it into a thrilling piece of theatre...This is an emotionally overwhelming production, and one that will haunt the memory of all who see it." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Wonderfully abundant, munificent version of Jamila Gavin’s Whitbread-winning novel." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A highly superior show that should appeal to adults and children alike."