Coram Boy was initially captivating, but ultimately unable to do justice to its epic story and weighty subject matter, which includes infanticide, child trafficking, and murder in eighteenth century England. Some uninteresting staging and unconvincing acting overshadowed excellent individual performances, meaning the production could not sustain its early promise.
Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Jamila Gavin's Whitbread prize-winning novel tells the story of boys sent to Thomas Coram’s hospital for deserted children. It follows Alexander Ashbrook and his son Aaron, among others, while also focusing on the appalling exploitation of vulnerable parents by Otis Gardiner, who gets rid of unwanted children for profit.
Ciaran Green was a convincing Alexander, while Stanley Thomas gave a standout performance as a funny and energetic Thomas Ledbury, Alex’s childhood friend. In the second section, set eight years later, Green plays Aaron, moving seamlessly into his lower-class accent and hesitant manner. Yet Benedict Flett was unnatural and over-the-top as an older version of Alexander, especially in the crucial scene where he and Thomas are reunited. Flett’s performance, along with a laughable representation of the sea – waving a piece of blue transparent material across the stage – helped make the tragic finale seem melodramatic, even comic.
At one point Alexander vividly describes his synaesthetic experience of music as like ‘fireworks’ going off in his mind. Music, and a passion for its beauty, are central motifs in Edmundson’s play. Fortunately, the various renditions from Alexander, Thomas and the Coram boy choir were impressive, and Melissa’s (Emily Mahon) first song was superb. However, the background music sometimes seemed abrupt and overly emotive, especially when it was used to cover increasingly rapid scene changes.
The set design was largely simple and unexciting, with the changing outlines of windows the only part of the scenery signifying a switch between locations. Yet Anna Russell and Emily Dan’s fantastic costumes partially compensated for this, giving the characters an authentic eighteenth century look, and usefully distinguishing their class.
Experimentation with audiovisual effects also drew attention away from the minimalist set, with varying degrees of success. Flashing images of children and stirring music accompanied the first of the disabled Meshak’s fits, increasing the intensity of Joe Sefton’s performance, and visually linking it to the suffering of the children he has just buried. But the rapid montage of sky and landscape, used to show the passing of six months since Alexander had left home, seemed crude and unnecessary.
Coram Boy was occasionally entertaining and moving. However, it failed to maintain the necessary balance between comedy and tragedy, with ever-faster scene changes hurtling it towards an underwhelming denouement. Some performance errors – including misremembering or stumbling over lines, and exiting the wrong way – are understandable on an opening night. But a lack of focus and some questionable acting are more of a problem, and prevent this production from fulfilling its potential.