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Coram Boy (Susan Elkin Reviews)

Coram Boy

Helen Edmundson, adapted from novel by Jamila Gavin

Directed by Anna Ledwich

Chichester Festival Theatre

Star rating: 3

There’s plenty to admire about this show. It’s big scale, sumptuous theatre and sits very nicely on Chichester’s big thrust stage. The singing – Handel and his Messiah are top of the pops at the time the play is set – is excellent and I really liked Max Pappenheim’s musical arrangements and references. A hint of Zadok the Priest at the climactic end of Act One, for instance, made me grin but it’s dramatically effective. And, of course, we get a cast of sixteen talented actors plus a number of children. Also in the mix is a fine four piece band on an upper level in front of designer Simon Higlett’s gleaming organ pipes. Under Stephen Higgins, directing from the keyboard, they provide all the music mimed by actors and pay a great deal of incidental music.

The story telling, however, is confusing. I read Jamila Gavin’s award winning novel when it was first published in 2000. It was a young adult novel which may be why it tries to pack so much in. It bothered me at the time and it’s bothered me each time I’ve seen Helen Edmundson’s adaptation – twice at National Theatre in 2005 and 2006 and at least twice elsewhere since. It really is too complicated to attempt to explore, among other things, and in an eighteenth century setting, child abuse, infanticide, abortion, pimping, blackmail, trafficking, slavery, learning difficulties and the redemptive power of music – all in one fell swoop. No wonder the plot is convoluted.

There are problems too with casting girls as young boys who later grow up into chaps – the action moves forwards eight years in the second half.  It’s quite hard to hang on to who is who. Moreover, when two characters get stabbed and fall to the ground, it seems a bit odd when one reappears soon after, without explanation, but the other doesn’t so we’re left to draw our own conclusions.

The villain of the piece is Otis Gardiner (Samuel Oatley –  chillingly good) who collects babies from unmarried women in the countryside and delivers them to Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in London. Except that he doesn’t. He takes the money and disposes of the babies. And it really went on. Skeletons have been found to corroborate it.  Gavin has done her research very thoroughly. Later, Gardiner reinvents himself in a very unlikely way and that really isn’t clear to the audience for a long time.

Jo Mcinnes plays Mrs Lynch, the housekeeper who liaises between Gardiner and young women in trouble. She is plausibly two-faced and self interested – and of course she and Gardiner are more than business associates. She is not always audible when she’s in one-to-one situations but her assertive speech when she finally leaves the Ashbrook house is quite something.

And all this is set against a background of two boys from very different backgrounds becoming friends at Gloucester Cathedral School and going on to be professional musicians – one at the Foundling Hospital and the other working with Handel who was one of the Foundling Hospital’s first sponsors.

There is a richly sensitive performance from Aled Gomer as Mishak Gardiner. Son of Otis, he is initially his father’s dogsbody. Later he breaks free and goes to work in the gardens at the Foundling Hospital. Gomer really captures the otherworldliness of a man who has seizures and is probably brain damaged but in some ways can see much more clearly then those around  him.

I could tell from the conversation around me that most of Chichester’s Tuesday matinee audience were new to this story and had little idea what to expect. Well, they certainly got high powered drama and lots of theatricality but I wasn’t surprised to hear some puzzled comments at the end.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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