Coram Boy, the stage adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s Whitbread Award-winning novel, opened at the National’s Olivier theatre last night. Tom Bowtell went along to see this startling story of lost boys, found fathers, irredeemable sinners and spiteful seas.
The word epic is rather over-used these days, being employed to describe everything from football matches to haircuts, which is why I generally try to avoid it. On this occasion, however, when I’m describing a play which features seismic familial feuds, passionate teenage love affairs, gothic horror, social deprivation, murder, slavery, fisticuffs and classical music, I hope I will be forgiven for saying that Coram Boy tells a truly epic tale.
Coram Boy begins in 1741 amidst the idyllic surrounds of Gloucester Cathedral and ends nine years later with Messianic magnificence in the chapel of Thomas Coram’s Hospital for Deserted Children. In between, the story veers rakishly from the sublime – merry singalongs in aristocratic mansions, to the hellish – wanton infanticide in the dark woods of the West Country. It is tempting, at this point, to launch into a description of the intricacies of the plot but, not wishing to spoil it, it need only be said that Jamila Gavin’s story, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, belts along like a souped-up Dickens, melding fragments of truth drawn from the history of Thomas Coram’s Hospital (the first orphanage of its sort) with fictionalised events and characters.
At the heart of the tale lie two orphans at the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children: Toby, saved from an African slave ship, and Aaron, the abandoned son of the heir to a great estate. The two boys are thrown together by the fates before struggling to escape from the horrific hands of the nefarious Otis Gardiner, the undoubted villain of the piece. It may not yet be Christmas but Gardiner (deliciously played by Paul Ritter) is just about the most boo-able character I’ve seen on stage this year. Barely able to conceal his snarling hatred of all “brats”, Gardiner is a self-styled Coram Man, a loathsome equivocator who travels the country searching for woe-begone parents who, in their desperation, are willing to pay him to take their children to the security of the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children. Having received the children into his care, however, the despicable Gardiner merely kills them, allowing him to pocket the money and move on to the next unfortunate family.
While Coram Boy may have won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, this is certainly not kid’s stuff, and earns its over-12s rating. The scenes where Gardiner and his troubled son Meshak bury the babies placed in their care – sometimes while they are still alive – elicited audible gasps from several audience members. The scenes are made all the more troubling by the uncannily realistic baby gurgles (and screams) produced by the surrounding ensemble cast members.
These on-stage sound effects are typical of director (and co-designer) Melly Still’s production, which sees the stage teeming with life as the main action is enhanced by the ensemble working around it. The set also lends itself to this fluidity, with scenes segueing seamlessly into each other, allowing the tension to build uninterrupted. Still more fluid (sorry) is the ingenious representation of the ocean that engulfs the stage, and everyone on it, as the play careers towards its climax. Handel’s gigantic church organ, meanwhile, stands at the back of the stage throughout, overshadowing everything and creating a visual backdrop every bit as striking as the musical one provided by his Messiah.
JHandel’s music (complemented by some impressively Handel-esque new work from composer Adrian Sutton) plays an integral part in the play, and is sung beautifully throughout by a choir of boys… who are actually girls. This is another intriguing innovation which casts females as all of the male children in the play and sees leads Anna Madeley (Aaron) and Akiya Henry (Toby) transforming themselves into ebullient 8-year-olds for the entirety of the second act. Less unusually, all of the men in the play are played by men, including George Frideric Handel himself, who appears for a teasing cameo as he arrives to play what National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner calls “The best music ever written in London”.
Much of the above underlines that this is a production willing to take risks. The biggest risk of all, however, is arguably the very staging of the play itself. Reproducing much-loved novels on the stage often leaves the creators open to criticism from ardent fans who had imagined that “so-and-so would be taller” or that “what’s-her-name would have more hair”. It remains to be seen how Coram Boy devotees will respond to this show, but the feedback from one of my fellow audience members, a certain Jamila Gavin, is promising: “I think Helen Edmundson has done a brilliant job of keeping the essence of the book and yet giving it new life on the stage. She has created a cracking piece of theatre.”
Coram Boy is running at the National’s Olivier Theatre until 4 February 2006.
Jamila Gavin's novel can be brought from www.egmont.co.uk