REVIEWER RATING: ★★★.5

Coram Boy is an award-winning novel by English author Jamila Gavin, first published in 2000. A work of historical fiction for teenagers, it was adapted for the stage by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Helen Edmundson, with the premiere presented by London’s National Theatre in 2005. A new production of Coram Boy, care of bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, is now playing at Kings Cross Theatre until 7 December.

Coram Boy is set in England in the eighteenth century, before the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Otis Gardiner (Lloyd Allison-Young) is known as the ‘Coram Man’. Travelling the land with his son, Meshak (Joshua McElroy), Gardiner takes advantage of women desperately searching for homes for their illegitimate babies. For a fee, he promises to take their children to suitable homes, including Captain Thomas Coram’s Hospital for parentless children. The truth is, though, that Gardiner has no concern for protecting the welfare of these infants.

Meanwhile, young Alexander Ashbrook (Ryan Hodson), heir to the manor, is a gifted composer who wants to work at Gloucester Cathedral as a composer and musician. But his father, Lord Ashbrook (Andrew Den), has other plans. Once Alexander’s voice breaks, Lord Ashbrook is determined he will learn how to run the family estate. He is also expected to marry Melissa Milcote (Annie Stafford), the daughter of the Ashbrooks’ governess (Suz Mawer).

The stories of the Coram Man and the Ashbrook family become intertwined with the aristocratic Ashbrooks ultimately forced to confront the shameful means by which they and their wealthy peers have been able to amass their fortunes, the narrow limits of their philanthropic endeavours, and just how close to home tragedy must hit before they’re compelled to act on grave crimes against those of lesser means.

Despite the fact of Gavin’s novel having targeted teens, Coram Boy on stage is adult in its content. It delivers in graphic detail stories of infanticide, child abuse and slavery, and is genuinely confronting. At the same time, the production (which runs 2 hours and 50 minutes with an interval) is a riveting experience that is focused despite its ambitious canvas. There are moments in the narrative that veer towards the sentimental (perhaps indicative of the show having its roots as a children’s novel) but it would take a cold heart not to be moved by the tales of loss and suffering at the heart of the story.

Directors John Harrison and Michael Dean have a tremendous amount of story with which to work, and it is clear how much thought has gone into its retelling. The narrative moves along at a swift pace, and scene transitions are artfully choreographed. This production has a cast of 15, working in an intimate space typically occupied by groups of five or six and, yet, performers manage to weave in and out of the theatre without incident. It’s obvious each change of scene has been not only well considered, but well-rehearsed.

Helping to give the piece fluidity, despite the frequent scene changes, is Nate Edmondson’s excellent cinematic soundscape. Handel’s Messiah oratorio appears alongside original instrumental music, and each piece has been carefully matched to a sequence, be it to underscore a scene or accompany a transition. Even a couple of contemporary tracks have made their way into the mix. Edmondson’s sound design is a vital aspect of this production.

A further feature of Harrison’s and Dean’s Coram Boy that is particularly successful is the use of its large cast to create some arresting images. In one standout sequence, performers are used to suggest Meshak’s efforts underwater to rescue two drowning children. Paired with Benjamin Brockman’s evocative lighting, it makes for a beautiful, transfixing moment in the piece, and Edmondson’s music is again another crucial contributor.

The cast of 15 works as a cohesive unit to make those bigger sequences work, but the individual performances also deserve recognition. McElroy’s wonderful portrayal of the mistreated and degraded Meshak is hugely sympathetic, giving us a sense of the young man’s profound torment. Hodson’s Alexander is innately amiable, resolutely determined to pursue his music but also loyal to those closest to him. As his best friend, Thomas Ledbury, Joshua Wiseman is strong, while Gideon Payten-Griffiths convinces in a number of roles, including Alexander’s music teacher, Dr Smith.

Playing Otis Gardiner, Allison-Young is excellent as the moral bankrupt of the piece. As Mrs Lynch, who assists Gardiner by finding unwed women with babies, Ariadne Sgouros is aptly pitiless and ultimately unrepentant. Her character has the single-most important passage of dialogue in the second act, and Sgouros’s delivery of that text is perfect, infused with the perfect balance of self-righteousness and cynicism.

Amanda Stephens-Lee’s Lady Ashbrook is kind-hearted, while Stafford is suitably virtuous as Melissa Milcote, and Mawer makes an impression as her mother, the governess. In the second act, Petronella Van Tienen is delightful as the eager young music student, Aaron Dangerfield, and Tinashe Mangwana compels as Toby Gaddarn, a child who finds himself living a life in service of the underbelly of society. Emma O’Sullivan, Violette Ayad, Rebecca Abdel-Messih and Andrew Den round out the cast admirably.

Staging Coram Boy in the 80-seat Kings Cross Theatre is an ambitious undertaking, but bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company’s efforts here have shown that an epic tale doesn’t necessarily require an epic space. Owing to the hard work of Harrison and Dean and their creative team, this is a heartrending and wholly absorbing production that also underscores the horrifying truth that, almost 300 years on, slavery continues as a blight on society.

Photo credit: Clare Hawley

CORAM BOYSEASON DETAILS

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Level 2, Kings Cross Hotel, 244-248 William Street, Kings Cross)
Dates: 
Playing now until 7 December 2019
Times: Tues – Sat 7pm and Sun 5pm
Ticket prices: $25 – $42
Bookings and information: www.kingsxtheatre.com

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