Coram Boy is a well-crafted, brave, bold and entertaining production. Its direction, acting, lighting and staging are all at an exceptional level. The show is worth seeing for several reasons.
My first impression from promotional publicity, that the work is about child exploitation in the eighteenth century and the first stages of the industrial revolution. It was actually about a more extreme, criminal activity of baby farming – a practice whereby poor mothers were offered a bogus service of adoption, in return for a payment. There would have been genuine such services – but in infamous cases, the babies were killed and the money for their upbringing embezzled. There was case a case in Newtown NSW, where many new born babies were buried in a backyard. The practice was an extreme example of criminal horror – it was not widespread or tolerated in society, and hence is a limited theatrical basis for mounting a general study about social conditions – such as the phenomenon of child labour in factories.
During the First Act I thought the show would develop as a Peter Greenaway type exploration of the interdependence of horror and art. Art came in with the presence of the famous composer Handel (played with precise and delightful English eccentricity by Gideon Payten-Griffiths) who was associated with the benevolent Coram Foundling Hospital, and in fact performed the first “Messiah” event there. In previous English and American productions of Coram Boy there was a full choir even orchestra on stage – in the Bakehouse production the performers sing, in an additional role for an already busy sharing of a small stage by 15 cast and 21 characters. The singing was pleasing, including Petronella Van Tienen as Edward Ashbrook. Children in the Hospital can performed in the choir, and in Handel’s work, and Petronella acquits the eight year old role in buoyant acting and polished singing.
The show develops in a convoluted intriguing plot about the fate of the Coram Boy. It might be tempting to depict Petronella as a lead role, but in an ensemble work of 15 this is not the case. The play is well developed in an assemblage of short scenes, that range in style to include enchanting depiction of undersea in movement by the whole cast. Maximum exposure of cast and characters is permitted. Lloyd Allison-Young played the role of Otis Gardener with a disturbing and adroit menace. In a sleek statement on class, the lower class murderer of week old babies uses his ill-gotten wealth in Act Two to transform into a gentleman patron of graduate of Coram Hospital, whom he ferries into hull of boat moored on the Thames in preparation for their life in slave sex trade in the Middle East. How does he make this transformation when he has been caught out, and apparently hung, for his earlier misdemeanours, is a twist of plot we can leave audiences to discover.
This production features an array of strong performances, seen up close in the intimate Bakehouse space. This alone makes the production satisfying. Annie Stafford literally shines, in one of many deft lighting moments in the play, as Melissa Milcote, the “angel” of Meshak’s (the epileptic simpleton in many dastardly deeds) yearnings for redemption. Meshak is played by Joshua McElroy with attuned conviction. The show is staged in a relatively modern ensemble style, a twist on the historical staging and attire that is prominent in the show, and makes it distinct in more contemporary styles that dominate current independent theatre. Less convincing is the use of modern third party recorded music and songs.
The music of Handel is both uplifting and also perplexing. If the show, for instance, had featured Handel from upstage when wrapped dead babies were being buried downstage, then some moral on art and life, Greenaway or other, would have been possible – such as the same producers affirmed in their excellent work “Dresden” (on Mozart and Hitler) performed recently on the same stage. By the time Act Two commences Handel has become an adjunct in a busy narrative that diminishes any expressionist depiction of horror, and limits any generalised message about class or child exploitation. In a complicated and fortuitous story, master Ashbrook is unlike virtually all the other Coram children having a father of privilege, Alexander Ashbrook, whose character provides a large and challenging role, well and consistently performed by Ryan Hodson. The play overall is more Dickensian in genre, as when, as in Great Expectations, the grime of everyday life is traded off in a chance sentimental story of one young boy in exceptional circumstances. The Dickensian mode is confirmed when we learn that Coram Boy was adapted for stage from a youth novel of the same name. The outcome is as much sentimental as it is cathartic – what does this one through line tell us about change and hope in society as a whole?
Now many famous musicals exist on the back of random or inconsequential plots. However Coram Boy does not set out to entertain in a commercial sense – and is certainly not a musical. It maintains the façade of serious drama, in the face of which audiences might ask, why has it been written, and produced, and what response is sought from an audience? There are undoubtedly good answers to these questions – but the questions are prompted at least for some of the audience. The overseas productions seemed to benefit from larger stages, achieving some operatic effect, and this might have provided some answers to the nature of the work. However the small Bakehouse stage had its own charm, even if finally at times it could feel just too hectic and crowded.
The show has many deserving features, none the least of which were composition and sound design by Nate Edmondson, the clever and convincing use of lights (and shadows) by Benjamin Brockman, the direction of such long, complex and rich material by John Harrison and Michael Dean, and the collective complex efforts of 31 on the published team. The production is not only brave – it is audacious and successful. It deserves to be seen and supported – it is finally satisfying, for all kinds of reasons.
CORAM is currently playing the Kings Cross Theatre.