Over the past five years, the 80-seat Kings Cross Theatre has made a reputation as a pocket-sized venue where big things can happen.
Resident company bAKEHOUSE has staged some of the most ambitious independent shows seen in Sydney, including Jatinga, The Laden Table and the immersive promenade performance Visiting Hours.
The making of those experiences now informs the making of BAKEHOUSE’s latest production, Coram Boy, an epic drama spanning three generations and featuring a cast of 15.
John Harrison, the production’s co-director (with Michael Dean), says the decision to “go big” was the starting point and made before the play was even selected.
“In intimate spaces like ours, where resources are often limited, it tends to be the smaller shows that get done,” Harrison says. “They can be as powerful and transformative as anything else but for audiences there’s always something exciting in seeing a lot of bodies in motion, and, for directors, coming up with imaginative staging solutions to some difficult challenges.”
“Well, there’s a chase through the streets of London, an extravagant ball and a drowning,” says Harrison. “And then we commune with Angels.”
A play of scale then but it also had to be a play that spoke to issues equally large, adds Harrison.
“In 2017, there was an announcement by the International Labor Organisation to the effect that, after a number of decades of decline, child slavery and exploitation is on the rise again. And Coram Boy deals with this concept – that the wealth of individuals and the wealth of nations is often built on the suffering of the less fortunate, on the unpaid scraping and toil of people who have no other options.”
First produced at the National Theatre in London in 2005, Coram Boy is a sweeping stage drama adapted from British author Jamila Gavin’s best-selling novel by Helen Edmundson. Its many characters and interwoven plots drew comparisons to stage epics such as Nicholas Nickleby.
The story beings in 18th-century England with a con-man, Otis Gardner, who targets unwed mothers, promising to take their babies to Thomas Coram’s Hospital for Foundling Children in London (for a small fee, naturally). Instead, he buries the babies – alive sometimes – in ditches by the road and pockets the cash.
Otis’s downfall is set in train when his son Meshak falls in love with a young girl, Melissa, and adopts the son she has had with a disgraced aristocrat. That boy is brought up in Coram’s Hospital and goes on to display uncanny musical gifts – a talent that will bring about his father’s redemption and a family reunion.
“It’s a play with some pretty dark moments,” says Harrison. “It doesn’t shy away from showing what could become of unwanted children and what kind of treatment they could expect if they lived. A lot of it is confronting, but there’s also an incredible love story in there, too. And it shows how people have a capacity to surprise us with goodness in the worst of times.”
Harrison adds that the story shares some thematic concerns with bAKEHOUSE’s 2017 production Jatinga, which cast light on the issue of young girls being trafficked into sex work and domestic slavery.
“We’ve always had a commitment to staging theatre that provokes social change and gets people aware of important issues in a way that’s entertaining and invigorating at the same time,” says Harrison. “We want to get people thinking about what they can do to contribute to societal change.”
Making a difference
That commitment to changing hearts and minds is reflected in bAKEHOUSE’s casting of the play (actors of Middle Eastern, Indigenous Australian, Indian, African, Egyptian and Greek heritage feature) and in the production’s community partnerships with the food charity Oz Harvest and The Smith Family.
Kings Cross Hotel and Kings Cross Theatre will be collecting canned and non-perishables throughout Coram Boy’s season and the pub’s kitchen is preparing to roll out a dedicated dish with a portion of sales profit going to Oz Harvest.
There will be a Christmas tree in the theatre foyer under which audiences are invited to place new toys and books for distribution by The Smith Family to families facing challenging times this festive season.
The seasonal atmosphere will be enhanced further by the singing of an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah at the end of the show. The audience, says Harrison, will be welcome – make that warmly encouraged – to join in at the end of the performance on November 27 in an event called Stand Up for the Children.
Handel, incidentally, was a patron of the Foundling Hospital founded by Thomas Coram in London in 1742. The building now houses London’s Foundling Museum.
“It’s a bit of a Christmas tradition that when a choir is singing The Messiah and they get to the Hallelujah chorus, people in the audience stand up and join in,” Harrison explains. “So we’re going to ask people to stand up and join in as best they can.”
“We’ll have a few people from different choirs in the house on those night to provide people with a little confidence,” Harrison adds. “I think it’s going to be a lovely way to raise awareness about the great work that Oz Harvest and The Smith family are doing at this time of year.”