by Richard Fitt
26th October 2016
Even though I see it has had good critically acclaimed runs on both Broadway and The West End I must admit to my shame I had never even heard of Coram Boy before I was asked to review this production, so it was with some intrigue and curiosity that I ventured along to see it.
I was also surprised to see it is based on a popular children’s novel by Jamil Gavin. Adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson and set in two acts between the years 1742 and 1750, this is not in any way a joyous uplifting story as it tackles the age-old tale of child abuse and more horrifically, infanticide in the 18th century.
Alexander Ashbrook, who has attended music school in London returns to his ancestral upper crust home in Gloucestershire accompanied by his good friend and fellow student, Thomas Ledbury to confront his father and obtain permission to carry on with his studies which his father, Sir William flatly refuses. He leaves home after an argument to pursue his passion and is disinherited by his father. Before he leaves however he falls in love with and has a sexual liaison with Melissa, the daughter of his siblings’ governess, Mrs Milcote, which unbeknown to him in his absence results in a baby being born.
In the background to this is Otis Gardner, known as The Coram Man who makes a vile living in human traffic including taking unwanted babies and, on the promise of delivering them to Coram Hospital to be cared for, in fact takes them out into the woods and with the help of his simpleton son, Meshak (or Mish as it is shortened to) buries them, often still alive! Into Otis’ hands Melissa and Alexander’s son, Aaron is passed via Otis’ unscrupulous partner in crime, Mrs Hendry, a family servant. Unable to bring himself to bury the infant, as he looks upon its mother Melissa as an angel, Meshak keeps the child alive where later, because of his singing voice and musical ability Aaron comes to the attention of Thomas Ledbury, who by this time has been taken under the wing of no lesser personage than George Frederic Handel himself.
In the second act we discover Otis, with the help of a bent magistrate has bribed his way passed the Gloucester hangman and is now living in London abducting children for foreign slavery and abuse. The act now mainly deals with the relationship between Aaron, by now 8 years old and Toby a similar aged African orphan, found on the streets of Bristol who becomes a child slave to Otis himself, catering to the abusive whims of Otis and his friends. Toby meanwhile keeps his spirits up by dreaming of finding his mother, who through his eyes is an African Princess.
Basically played to a bare stage, since most of the scenes are short, some barely a minute long, with the actors themselves bringing on whatever furniture was required, this is a brave play for a youth production to take on, which such a large cast to organise requiring a huge amount of concentration just to get the entrances correct! Blink and you’d miss or be late for your cue, which momentarily did happen a couple of times and which of course did the pace no favours whatsoever! With such a bare stage I kept wondering why there were several large, seemingly out of place drainpipes at odd angles adorning the stage throughout until the scene on the ship late in the second act where all was revealed as items around which abducted and enslaved children were tied.
The acting was generally of a very high standard with some excellent performances, but I did keep wishing the scenes were longer as hardly had an emotion been vaguely expressed that we had moved on to the next scene, which to my mind stifled some of the performances and made it hard to get into the depth of the characters. Not in any way the fault of the director or the actors it was just the way the script went. When we did get some longer scenes the actors of course could exploit their not inconsiderable talents. Tom Ross as Alexander and Will Taylor as Thomas Ledbury bounced off each other particularly well and when given the chance gave a full reign to their characters. Callum Jackson dominated his scenes as the tyrannically stern father and Chloe Graham as his long-suffering wife was his perfect foil. Sam Robinson was chillingly brilliant as the evil Otis Gardner and gave his character a seriously nasty edge! I also loved the subtle acting of Oliver Bennett as Mershak, the sensitive simpleton with little understanding of his actions but with a kind heart. Beautifully done. Eve Sharp was my standout actress of the evening, her portrayal of Mellissa was a class act, and one actress who did manage her full range of emotions in the short scenes.
However, it is to the two youngsters to whom I salute. Munro Mwandia and Sam Walter as Toby and Aaron brought a new dimension and were the two stars of the show. Mature beyond their years they brought presence, extra energy and pace in abundance with an excellent chemistry between them. Sam Walter bore an uncanny resemblance in both looks and acting style to a young Mark Lester of Oliver fame. Standout moment was Toby’s (Munro’s) face in raising a fixed smile at Otis’s command. One of the very few places where I laughed out loud. You boys have a great future on the stage, I look forward to seeing more of the pair of you.
Lighting by Jake Brightman and Paul Wildman must also have been a huge concentration of effort with so many scene changes but not a cue was noticeably missed. They even had the awareness and guts to re-dim the lights when they realised two actors were missing from the opening of a scene to which they were both somewhat vital.
The costumes by Virginia Pope were big budget (or the Mill has a big store?) and spot on they were too. A real array of 18 th century finery and beautifully tableaued by director Paul Wildman at various points of the show. Also, very clever uniforms for the pupils of the music school choir. All in all, a treat for the eyes. Superbly complimented by an equally splendid array of period wigs by Susan Moore.
The music arranged by Terry Hooper produced some finely sung work by the school choir, Thomas Ledbury and of course father and son, Alexander and Aaron. However, I am wondering if there was a lot left out of this production, as in doing my homework I read in several accounts that Handel’s music was the continuous backbone of the play? Although we did get a few sung and also (very well) mimed Handel harpsichord pieces, particularly by Melissa (who was so in time Eve must surely be a pianist herself?) I did feel at times some additional music, especially during some of the more cumbersome scene changes might have benefited both the pace and the tempo of the play.
All in all, a very thought provoking and interesting production of which Paul Wildman and his team can be proud. A hard one to pull off which in the main they did very well indeed. Thank you very much indeed. Also, thank you to Dave Oliver and his team for their usual FOH hospitality. Always a hospitable theatre to visit. Oh, yes, and your new central heating works splendidly!