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A CurtainUp Review
Coram Boy
Coram Boy Gets an American Cast On Broadway
The silks on your back, the sugar in your tea is all founded on the suffering of others.
— Mrs Lynch

Uzo Aduba and Xanthe Elbrick
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's impossible for stories ripped from the dark pages of British history when poor, unwanted children were in constant danger from villainous adults to escape being labeled as Dickensian. Yet that doesn't mean that contemporary writers can't successfully follow in Dickens' footsteps— provided that, like children's book author Jamila Gavin, they have a ripping good tale to tell. Gavin's Coram Boy, had everything needed to persuade young adult readers ( ages 12 and up) to at least temporarily read a book instead of watching TV: Stuffed with historical facts, its several story lines to paint a striking picture contrasting 18th-century British city and country life, and the huge divide between the wealthy landowners and those living in the lower depths of poverty.

Gavin's title was inspired by the story's villain Otis Gardner, who was nicknamed "th Coram man" after the Coram hospital opened for abandoned children in 1741 by a real and more worthy man named Captain Thomas Coram. It was in this home that Gardner falsely promised to place the children of desperate young mothers. Naturally, Gavin has not overlooked heroes and a star crossed romance.

But no matter how epic its sweep, a young adult novel rarely turns up on a West End or Broadway stage. Yet that's exactly what's happened to Coram Boy. Adapted by Helen Edmundson (whose own plays include an Irish historical epic, The Clearing,, the adaptation is directed with a strong gothic flavor and staged in a grand manner. That grandeur includes a 40-member chorus and small orchestra to tie the many strands of the melodrama together with a soaring Handel-sound-alike score as well as some real Handel to send you out of the theater humming "Hallelujah, Hallelujah!"

Except for some comments about the American cast Lizzie Loveridge's review following the current production notes apply to the transfer so that only a few comments about the Broadway theater and the American cast are in order.

Lizzie's feeling that the production didn't fill the thrust stage enough isn't a problem on the Imperial's skyscraper high proscenium stage which accommodates a balcony for the chorus and has a pit for the bewigged and costumed chamber orchestra. The more than usual number of empty seats at a much anticipated new play last Saturday bear out Lizzie's opinion that this epic scaled production falls into that dangerous zone of being too long and complex and even ghoulish for a large enough segment of young audience (meaning, under 12) and not sophisticated enough for their elders.

The American cast is every bit as good as the British actors apparently were. Bill Camp is as wicked a villain as you could wish for and Jan Maxwell is perfect as Mrs. Lynch the not so loyal housekeeper to the Ashbrooks. Xanthe Elbrick excels in the acting and singing department as 13-year-old Alexander Ashbrook in the first act and as his orphanage raised 8-year-old son Aaron in the second and better act. I was disappointed to see the excellent Laura Heisler so underused as the second son in the Ashbrook house.

While the almost three hours didn't exactly fly by for me, in today's economy ruled small cast theater, it's always a thrill to see this sort of grand staging — especially that curtain call with the entire cast singing Handel's glorious "Messiah."

For some fascinating background on the Coram Hospital from its formation to its present activities, I highly recommend a visit to London's Foundling Museum's website at

New York Production Notes
Adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Jamila Gavin
Directed by Melly Still
Music by Adrian Sutton
Musical Director and Principal Conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos
Cast: Jolly Abraham (Molly), Uzo Aduba (Toby), Jacqueline Antaramian (Mrs. Hendry), Bill Camp (Otis Gardiner/Philip Gaddarn), Dashiell Eaves (Adult Thomas Ledbury), Xanthe Elbrick (Young Alexander Ashbrook/Aaron), Tom Riis Farrell (Mr. Claymore), Brad Fleischer (Meshak Gardiner), Karron Graves (Isobel Ashbrook), Laura Heisler (Edward Ashbrook), Angela Lin (Miss Price), David Andrew Macdonald (Lord Ashbrook), Quentin Maré (Dr. Smith/Handel), Jan Maxwell (Mrs. Lynch), Kathleen McNenny (Mrs. Milcote), Cristin Milioti (Alice Ashbrook), Charlotte Parry (Young Thomas Ledbury), Christina Rouner (Lady Ashbrook), Ivy Vahanian (Angel/Melissa) and Wayne Wilcox (Adult Alexander Ashbrook).
Set and costumes: Ti Green and Ms. Still;
Original lighting by Paule Constable, recreated by Ed McCarthy
Original sound by Christopher Shutt, recreated by Acme Sound Partners
Additional arrangements by Derek Barnes
Music Coordinator, John Miller National Theater of Great Britain production at the Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200.
From 4/16/07 to 9/01/07; opening 5/02/07
Tuesday to- Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with an Intermission
Tickets: $101.50 to $56.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at May 5th matinee
Closed early on 5/27/07

Review of Coram Boy in London by Lizzie Loveridge

Following up on the National Theatre's success in 2003 and 2004 with His Dark Materials, is the adaptation of a Whitbread prize winning novel about abandoned children in mid-eighteenth century London, Coram Boy. The publicity for this ambitious production says it is about two boys, "Toby (Akiya Henry), saved from an African slave ship and Aaron (Anna Madeley), the abandoned son of the heir to a great estate." In fact Toby's story is sidelined to the second act of the play and even then concentrates on his life after being re-homed by the Coram Hospital for Foundlings Hospital here (see my review of Heroes) means place of shelter or residential home, rather than care for the sick. It is a large scale production but I think it could fall between audiences, being too long and complex and even ghoulish for children, and not sophisticated enough for adults.

The first act is very much a setting of the stage for the second. There are many different strands to Jamila Gavin's novel. We follow two boys at a cathedral choir school, the aristocratic Alexander Ashbrook (Anna Madeley) and Thomas Ledbury (Abby Ford). By contrast with Lord Ashbrook's stately home in Gloucestershire, there is the poverty of the city children. Meshak Gardiner (Jack Tarlton) is the deprived and handicapped son of Otis Gardiner (Paul Ritter) small time criminal and con man. Otis Gardiner with his accomplice Mrs Lynch (Ruth Gemmell), housekeeper to the Ashbrooks, tricks ashamed young women of good birth into giving him their illegitimate babies and money, in return for a promise to take the child to the Coram Foundling Hospital. Gardiner in fact buries the babies alive, if they have not died already, and continues to take the money from the mothers. This is a despicable crime, only made possible by the attitude of society towards girls who are pregnant, often by men who are rich and married, and who take no responsibility. Otis Gardiner is caught and hanged for his crimes.

In the second act, eight years later, Alexander Ashbrook, now grown (Bertie Carvel) has run away from home after his father forbids him to continue with a musical career. His impoverished cousin Melissa (Justine Mitchell) has had his baby, Aaron who is saved from death by Meshak Gardiner and taken to the Coram Foundling Hospital. Toby and Aaron grow up together at Coram. Aaron is apprenticed to a musician while Toby's fate is as a designer accessory, black child servant to a bewigged, white faced and patched, society wheeler dealer, Mr Gadarn (Paul Ritter). He is forced to grin and grin until his face aches. Toby's employer is pretending to find jobs and homes for Coram girls but is in fact arranging for them to be shipped abroad into the white slave trade. All chickens come home to roost and errant parents are made to see the error of their ways in a tear jerking finale, which even as I looked for a handkerchief, I perversely found overly sentimental.

I found the staging of the first half not large enough to fill the Olivier's massive space but the second act is considerably better. I would have liked to have seen more of a Shared Experience type, physical theatre treatment of Jamila Gavin's novel. There were however wonderful moments in Melly Still's production. The disinterring of the skeletons of babies is horrific, as is the live burial of a crying baby. The scene at the gallows is very well staged; so is that onboard ship, when the girls face transportation to a grisly fate. The magical scene where the boys are thrown overboard is staged behind water resembling polythene and is really evocative as we see these water babies (on invisible wires) swimming to the surface. The music is quite lovely, culminating with the Handel Messiah's Hallelujah Chorus, which was actually first performed at the Coram Hospital. The voices of the choirs (the choirboys are played by women) permeate the play and are very touching. There is a septet of Georgian dressed musicians in semi-darkness at the rear of the stage and two dozen choir singers.

Anna Madeley is outstanding as the boys Alexander and Aaron Ashbrook. Her solo singing voice provides some of the high points of the production and her fidgetting, boyish gruff manner and gauche shrugs are beautifully directed and acted. Abby Ford is very convincing as the young and enthusiastic Thomas Ledbury. Paul Ritter is a chilling double villain. Akiya Henry strikes a profound note when we see the enforced, stereotypical role of the black servant while his employer congratulates himself on his "civilised" nature. Jack Tarlton is touching as the half-witted, neglected boy who worships a statue of an angel in the cathedral and in true Christmas tradition, the angel flies.

I did gather some historical detail from this production and it redoubled my resolve to visit London's Foundling Museum. Coram Boy is full of "facts" like black balling, the literal lottery by which babies are chosen to be taken into the Foundling Hospital or cast aside. I was touched by the many tokens hanging at Coram, each a precious memento of the mother who had abandoned her baby. With so many schools teaching mainly twentieth century history, Coram Boy provides an unforgettable picture of an earlier age, even if that picture is at times overly contrived.

Written by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Jamila Gavin
Directed by Melly Still

Starring: Paul Ritter, Anna Madeley
With: Jack Tarlton, Justine Mithell, Nicholas Tizzard, Abby Ford, Ruth Gemmell, Inika Clay Wright, Adam Shipway, Rebecca Johnson, Kelly Williams, Eve Matheson, Katherine Manners, Sophie Bould, William Scott-Masson, Bertie Carvel, Sharon Maharaj, Akiya Henry, Chetna Pandya, Stuart McLoughlin
Design: Ti Green and Melly Still
Lighting: Paule Constable
Music and Soundscore: Adrian Sutton
Musical Direction and Vocal Improvisations: Derek Barnes
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Not recommended by the National Theatre for those under 12 years
Box Office: 0207 452 3000
Booking until 4th February 2006.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th November 2005 performance at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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