Inika Leigh Wright
The Olivier is the biggest of the National’s three theatres, a cavernous space that can be difficult to fill. However Melly Still’s soaring production of Coram Boy, returning to the theatre for a second seasonal run, is more than up to the task, flooding the stage with music and people and colour, dragging the audience along on an emotionally draining but undeniably thrilling theatrical journey.
Based on Jamila Gavin’s award-winning children’s novel, Coram Boy is a story of lost children. Otis Gardiner, known as the Coram Man, promises safe passage to the Coram Foundling Hospital for babies born out of wedlock however though he pockets the money of many distressed mothers, the children never make it to London, they are coldly disposed off en-route by Otis and his epileptic, slow-witted son Meschak. In another plot strand young Alexander Ashbourne, a promising young composer, is disowned by his wealthy father when he won’t quit his beloved music studies. These stories intersect when a member of the Ashbourne household finds herself requiring the sinister services of the Coram Man.
With its dead babies and numerous other harrowing moments, some critics (including musicOMH’s previous reviewer) found the production just too dark, the material too black, to be suitable for a family audience. And it’s true that Still’s production features some fairly nightmare-ish scenes. In fact the National itself does not recommend the show for children under 12, but on the night I went, there were quite a few young people in of around that age, and they were rapt, transfixed throughout.
This is lavish, imaginative theatre on a grand scale. The layered plot twists and turns, but not at the expense of character and a touching friendship develops between the young Alexander and his less well off friend Thomas. This flows through in the second half of the play when events skip forwards eight years and the characters are played by different actors. In the earlier scenes the young boys are played convincingly by women (especially Abby Ford as the young Thomas).
Helen Edmunson’s assured adaptation wavers in the second half, with so many plot stands to tie up, it has to break into an unseemly sprint to cram everything in. But the production still finds time for some beautiful moments an underwater scene created with a sheet of shimmering fabric succeeds in being both striking and moving. The music of Handel, which plays such an integral role in matters, doesn’t always achieve the transcendent quality they were perhaps aiming for, getting rather swallowed by the large Olivier auditorium.
These are small quibbles. This is a sumptious production, inventive, memorable and strongly performed by a talented ensemble cast. But it is not for those looking for a cosy Christmas theatre experience; the first half concludes with a nerve-shredding series of scenes that concludes with a public hanging and the play never shies away from its dark subject matter, containing a number of unsettling and potentially upsetting moments. However if you bear this in mind, if you come prepared, then Coram Boy is definitely one of the more rewarding shows you’ll see this winter.