Coram Boy @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Sophie Bould
Bertie Carvel
Abby Ford
Ruth Gemmell
Akiya Henry
Rebecca Johnson
Inika Leigh Wright
Stuart McLoughlin
Anna Madeley
Katherine Manners
Eve Matheson
Justine Mitchell
Paul Ritter
Jack Tarlton
Kelly Williams

directed by
Melly Still
Following on from last year’s staging of the His Dark Materials plays, the National Theatre’s new winter production draws again on a popular children’s book; this time a novel by the Whitbread winning author Jamila Gavin.

This is however no fantasy epic – the play deals directly with Eighteenth Century attitudes to illegitimate children and the hard realities that faced many women of that time. Not exactly a pantomime romp. In fact the National itself does not recommend the play for children under the age of 12 – with very good reason.

Coram Boy is a very dark, and often distressing, tale that does not flinch from depicting the brutalities of a time when to have children outside wedlock was considered by many to be the worst crime imaginable.

The first act, set in 1742, introduces us to Otis Gardiner, known as the Coram Man, a true scoundrel who takes money from unsuspecting and desperate women who have given birth to illegitimate children, promising them that he will take their infant to the famous Coram Foundling Hospital in London. But in reality Gardiner and his son, Meshak, take the children, murder them and bury them in woods.

Paul Ritter plays Gardiner as a man prepared to do anything to anyone in order to get what he wants, yet he also manages to humanise a man who could so easily have become a pantomime baddie. Meshak, played by Jack Tarlton, is a boy beaten down both by his father and by circumstance, and it is his character’s path to redemption that ends up being one of the key weaknesses of this play; his scenes simply fail to move as they should.

The play also follows the fortunes of Alexander Ashbrook, heir to a large estate and with ambitions to be a composer like his hero Handel. We are initially introduced to Alexander (played by Anna Madeley) as a young man of 15, still singing in the cathedral choir when he meets the younger but much more worldly Thomas Ledbury (Abby Ford). These two actresses are called upon to do much singing throughout the play, in various guises, for the music of Handel provides a backbone and continuity to the drama, and they do a wonderful job. Madeley in particular possesses both a beautiful voice and the ability to convince as a young boy.

The first act – a long one, coming in at almost an hour and a half – is often sombre in tone, delving deeply into the darkness of the time. It features some truly horrific scenes involving dead babies – which accounts for the play’s unsuitability for young children. There are also some major pacing problems in these early scenes: it feels very long and very busy, and there is a huge amount time devoted to shifting people and props on and off stage which often interferes with the action.

The second act is set eight years later, in the Coram Hospital itself and concentrates on the stories of two orphans: Toby, an African boy rescued from a slave ship, and the musically gifted Aaron (both brought to the hospital as infants by Meshak). This second half is a much more enjoyable affair altogether, with all the situations which were so laboriously set up in the first act finally beginning to come together in an exciting fashion.

This is a play with its fair share of problems; it is very uneven, the first half playing as a dark, almost gothic horror and the second half a fast paced romp, the two halves never quite working together. At nearly three hours, it is also too long for a production with a family audience in mind. Having said that, the acting is uniformly good and the singing is wonderful. There is a large amount of the music of Handel performed throughout and the musicians do a magnificent job of backing up the onstage action.

This is certainly not a play for the faint-hearted and is an odd choice as a festive offering, yet as long as you don’t expect perfection, it still contains much to enjoy.

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