DramaNorth WestReview

Coram Boy- The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Writer: Jamila Gavin adapted by Helen Edmundson

Director: Anna Ledwich

Composer: Max Pappenhelm

Adapted from the novel by Jamila Gavin, Helen Edmundson’s Coram Boy is a dense, ambitious play with music which defies easy summarisation. Spanning years and featuring cameo appearance from real-life people like composer Frideric Handel as well as characters who reappear, sometimes with new identities, it is Dickensian in scope and in social commentary.

Events are inspired by the true-life Captain Thomas Coram who founded a hospital to house children abandoned by their parents. However, as in the present day where people smugglers prey upon those desperate to escape hostile countries, some take advantage of the situation by promising despairing parents to take their unwanted children to the hospital for a fee; instead trafficking them into the army or sexual slavery or allowing infants to die.

Against this background Alexander Ashbrook (Will Antenbring) leaves his wealthy family to pursue a musical vocation not realising he has left behind a son who is later taken into the Coram hospital. Almost a decade later Alexander encounters, but does not recognise, his son, Aaron (Louisa Binder, who played the young Alexander Ashbrook in act one, plays his son in act two) who has inherited his father’s musical gifts. But the child traffickers who arranged for Aaron to be taken from his home in the first place continue to keep an eye on him, one repenting and trying, in a twisted way, to put things right but the other determined to exploit the child’s friends still further.

Director Anna Ledwich makes a virtue of necessity. The dense plot requires rapid scene changes so there is minimal scenery and events take place on the front or middle of the stage with other parts in darkness. This creates a morally shady environment in which dark deeds take place. The mood is Dickensian from the beginning; the split-level stage has a string trio (clarinet, cello and violin) and keyboards on the upper level and, at the opening, a Gothic figure in a tattered wedding dress striking a mournful pose.

There is a strong sense of compression to ensure all events and characters in the complex story are accommodated onstage. The plot moves quickly from one event to another resulting in a fragmented storyline. This may be explained by events being narrated, or imagined, by a character whose epilepsy induces psychic visions or possibly hallucinations.

Director Ledwich employs imaginative storytelling techniques to move events along briskly. The use of blackmail to secure a reprieve for a character condemned to the gallows is shown without dialogue just a quick display of incriminating material to change the mind of a guilty magistrate. Nevertheless, act two feels more dramatically satisfying after considerable groundwork is completed in the first act to set the scene.

Coram Boy is a play with music rather than a musical and the choral score by Max Pappenhelm sets a sedate pace which does not promote dramatic tension. Sensibly, as the boys Alexander and Aaron, are of an age before their voices break, they are played by a female actor with Louisa Binder contributing gorgeous pure vocals.

With so many incidents, all of them apparently significant, it is hard to identify the focal point of the play. The discovery (ironically by children playing a game) of graves where traffickers disposed of infants is staged flatly without emphasising the creepy Gothic horror of the scene. The overall lack of drama seems odd as the relationship between Alexander and music is so intense, he mentally sees the notes in colour as he composes.

It is impressive such a demanding novel has been adapted to the stage retaining the features which made it so special, but the sheer scale of the story necessitates theatregoers having a great deal of concentration or prior knowledge of the book. Although the source novel was aimed at younger readers the stage version is a lot to digest.

Runs Until 29 June 2024

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A lot to digest

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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