“Dickensian” is a descriptor that seems to have stuck to this sprawling tale of infanticide, child exploitation and the imperishable power of music.
But by the time a man you’ve watched die comes back to life as an international child exploitation kingpin, you start to wonder if Charles Dickens would have had the nerve.
Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s novel for young adults, Coram Boy was originally created for London’s National Theatre and a stage with acres of space to fill. This bAKEHOUSE production compresses the whole shebang into playing area not much bigger than a single-car garage.
The story opens in 1742 in rural Gloucestershire from where uncoils a story of deceit and murder as mothers entrust their illegitimate newborns to Otis Gardiner, a man claiming to be an agent for London’s famed Coram’s Foundling Hospital.
In reality, the minute the weeping mother’s back is turned, Gardiner rids himself of the children in the most callous way imaginable. It falls to his simple-minded son Meshak to do the dirty work and he pays a terrible mental price for doing so.
Woven with this is a family drama centred on young Alexander Ashbrook, the musically talented son of a shipping magnate, disinherited and disowned after he fathers a child with a governess.
That child – a boy – is himself spirited away to Coram’s Hospital where he catches the ear of the composer George Frederic Handel (in real life, a major benefactor of the institution, in case you were wondering), who apprentices him to – wait for it – a rising star by the name of Alexander Ashbrook.
Recognition and reconciliation is on the cards, surely, but in this tale, nothing is straightforward. Danger lurks around every corner.
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Edmundson is expert in tailoring novelistic stories to the stage (Anna Karenina and Mill on the Floss) and her translation maintains an appealing velocity even if its characters fall short of convincing human complexity.
The story creates some big problems to solve but co-directors John Harrison and Michael Dean fashion inventive solutions and some striking images manage to burn into one’s mind despite the prevailing sense of headlong rush: the burial of babies in a graveyard of human statues; a drowning man’s shimmering encounter with his “angel”; a young African servant’s introduction to the morally corrupt world of his new master.
The play’s major figures of the story are solidly drawn, led by Ryan Hodson as the synaesthesic prodigy Alexander and Joshua Wiseman as Thomas, the friend Alexander makes while singing in the choir of Gloucester Cathedral. His firm singing and violin playing are most welcome in this context.
Lloyd Alison-Young goes the full Bill Sykes on Otis Gardiner to excellent effect and Joshua McElroy is very plausible as Meshak, who comes across as anything but the generic simpleton his father believes him to be.
Petronella van Tienan and Tinashe Mangwana sparkle in the second act as foundling friends Aaron and Toby. In Mangwana’s hands, Toby’s transformation from bright-eyed orphan to fearful servant (and, it’s hinted, sexual plaything) is particularly touching.
Elsewhere, some vivid secondary characters crystalise from the saturated swirl of bodies: Ariadne Sgouros’ brutally pragmatic Mrs Lynch; Gideon Payten-Griffiths’ choirmaster Smith and George Handel; Annie Stafford’s angelic Melissa Milcote; Amanda Stephens-Lee’s decorously heartbroken Lady Ashbrook.
Lighting (Benjamin Brockman) makes strong use of hard beams through haze to accentuate the sense of a moral murk being pierced by the light of human kindness. Sound designer/composer Nate Edmondson’s synthetic-orchestral score imparts a filmic gallop to a production whose rough edges and unresolved patches will be addressed as the season unfolds.
The play’s climax isn’t quite there yet but you can’t help but root for something resulting from such a giant collective effort.