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A CurtainUp Review
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.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide