Adapted by Helen Edmundson, from a novel by Jamila Gavin
What a Christmas treat - music, drama, pantomime, period costume and fabulous staging all of which are rolled in Coram Boy. If theatre is to be measured on the scale of motor cars, then this production is a Rolls Royce.
The story exposes aspects of life in 18th Century London. It was a period when there was grinding poverty and morality was riddled with hypocrisy. Evil and greed walked hand-in-hand where illegitimate babies, of rich or poor mothers, were most unwelcome arrivals to the world.
Babies are vulnerable but illegitimate babies in the 18th century were mostly abandoned and left to die, apart from the fortunate few who were admitted to the Foundling Hospital, the brain child of a retired sea-captain, Thomas Coram.
Coram Boy is actually the tale of two boys who were fortunate to be given a lease of life against the odds, at the Foundling Hospital. Toby, performed boisterously by Debbie Korley, is a black boy believing his mother was a princess sold as a slave, and Aaron, tenderly performed by Katherine Manners, whose only contact with his past is merely hinted by a simpleton called Meshak Gardiner (Al Weaver) referring to him as the 'Angel's baby'.
The audience is aware of Aaron's pedigree. He was conceived in Sir William Ashbrook's lavish house in Gloucester. The musically talented first son and heir, Alexander Ashbrook, and Melissa, a poor cousin, met and eventually fell in love. The director, Melly Still, cleverly establishes the nature of the young couple's relationship without "corrupting" the innocent and young audience, by placing them at far end of the stage where they mime an act of passionate love making. While that was taking place there were other activities taking place at the front of the Ashbrook's living room which gently distract from the act which led to far reaching consequences.
Aaron and Toby are delivered to different fates after leaving the Coram hospital. Their paths diverge and meet in a dramatic circumstance which allows Melly Still to create an impressive and creative drowning scene.
The stern Captain, Sir Ashbrook (William Scott-Masson), agrees for his musically talented son, Alexander, to join the Cathedral Choir until his voice breaks. After that he would have to be trained for his destined future as the heir to the Ashbrook estate.
At the Cathedral's Choir Alexander befriends a carpenter's son, Thomas Ledbury, exquisitely performed by Abby Ford, whose musical talent was recognised despite his "poor" background. Ford's sparkling performance and fine voice instantaneously endears the vivacious and witty Ledbury to all, apart from Sir Ashbrook who is adamant to dissuade Alexander to abandon his music and concentrate on family matters.
A paralleled subplot takes place, where the evil infanticide, Otis Gardiner, is busy luring and seducing the mendacious Mrs Lynch, the Ashbrooks' trusted housekeeper.
Each of the sub-plots reaches a crescendo, but all whirl to the live orchestra playing music composed by Adrian Sutton's variations on Handel, beautifully sung by young choristers. Handel's Messiah strikes up in and engulfs the whole auditorium with the glorious Hallelujah Chorus. Maestro Handel (Nicholas Tizzard) appears dressed in the familiar floppy hat in which he is represented in portraits of him; his humour is just an extra treat in a delightful production.
On the opening night the National Theatre launched 'The Big Wall', a large, touch-sensitive, interactive screen. Just touch any of the following projected topics - 'The Story', 'The People', 'The Times', 'Backstage' - and the tale behind the topic unfold. Judging by the number of youngsters by The Big Wall, it may have hit the right note. It is situated on the ground floor of the NT in the Lyttelton foyer.
Philip Fisher reviewed the original 2005 production
Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson