Last year’s seasonal hit at the National returns trailing clouds of glory, choruses of Handel and several of the same cast in Melly Still’s powerful production of child trafficking and musical aspiration in 18th-century Gloucester and London.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s award-winning novel has a Dickensian sweep to its narrative that is finally moving, even if the story is hard to latch on to at first. The central fact that releases the show’s power is that Handel conducted a performance of The Messiah at Thomas Coram’s hospital for abandoned children in London (shortly after the Dublin premiere).
Thus the convergent stories of the unwanted child of an aristocratic musician and the vile activities of a reptilian child-snatcher, Otis Gardiner, and his disturbed accomplice son, Meshak, are underpinned by ironic blasts of “For unto us a child is born”. Thomas Coram was a sea captain and philanthropist who established his foundling hospital in 1739. The events of this play begin three years later.
Not only does the piece carry the unforced resonance of the sex trade and labour camp abuse of children we still see, incredibly, going on around the world today; the earth scrabbling, psychopathic murders evoke the terrors of modern monsters like Ian Brady and Fred West.
An upstage choir and small band is ever present, and the stage is filled with tall slanting trees, a huge organ, a flying angel, children’s skeletons and mourning mothers; the second half, eight years later, shows the moral fight back against Otis’ campaign of abduction and child trafficking with the glorious surge of Handel’s music and a full-scale finale of the “Hallelujah” chorus. Even Handel himself is recreated in a nicely judged comic performance (slight German accent) by Nicholas Tizzard.
There’s no doubt that the National has created a new, if slightly macabre, children’s classic for Christmas, even if the show comes with a recommendation for 12-year-old upwards. The young boys are played and sung by young girls, notably Abby Ford and Katherine Manners, while Ruth Gemmell and Rebecca Johnson repeat their luminous adult performances from last year.
Tim McMullan is the new Otis, a sinister, slimy customer who escapes the hangman’s noose – a magical trick, this – rather like Mack the Knife, to reinvent himself as a pillar of society with a piccaninny pet servant in tow. Meshak, smitten with angelic visions of the same girl who haunts the musical lad, and traumatised by his father’s evil doings, is given a tremulous, Smike-like quality by Al Weaver.
I have to admit that I find some of the staging a little glib and plastered-on, in the unconvincing physical style of some Shared Experience shows, but it’s impossible not to applaud the ambition of the project (developed by Tom Morris) and the vigour of Still’s work with her co-designer Ti Green, lighting designer Paule Constable, musical director Derek Barnes and sound designer Christopher Shutt.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following review dates from November 2005 and this production’s original run at the NT Olivier.
The National may have been having a sometimes patchy year, but it's on another winning streak at last with a double dose of theatrical fireworks that have ignited from surprising places. After Ibsen’s rarely-seen Pillars of the Community galvanised us with its blazing topicality in the Lyttelton, Jamila Gavin’s Whitbread Children’s Book Award winner Coram Boy, first published in 2000, has now been brought to the Olivier stage with the kind of epic flair and power not seen on there since Nicholas Hytner’s two-part version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Like the Pullman, Coram Boy comes under the umbrella of the National’s work for younger audiences. But – carrying an advisory that it is recommended for audiences of 12 and over, with all tickets for under-18s reduced to £16 – it likewise casts darkly nightmarish shadows that are sustained with thrilling narrative tension throughout and that make it utterly compelling theatre for anyone. A big, boldly conceived piece of storytelling theatre, it resonates with a keen social concern for the issue of abandoned children and the trade in child labour of 18th-century Britain. Yet, since there are many parts of the world where such exploitation continues today, it also has what Heather Neill’s programme note calls “a dreadful modern resonance”.
Dickens seems to be everywhere this Christmas – with the jollied-up Scrooge already at the London Palladium, and Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol and an RSC adaptation of Great Expectations to come. Coram Boy, too, has a Dickensian sweep of the crimes of social injustices and cover-ups, even though it's set in a timeframe a hundred years earlier than when Dickens was writing.
Gavin’s story – anchored by the real-life legacy of Thomas Coram whose Foundling Hospital was first established in 1739 to give a home to abandoned babies – revolves around two boys who grow up in the institution and the circumstances of what brought them there. But even having parents is no guarantee of security in a complex social order where personal selfishness rules, and there’s a complex weaving of other adult stories within it.
As adapted by Helen Edmundson, a playwright who is best known for her literary adaptations for Shared Experience, it becomes a vibrantly theatrical tale, too. And as directed by debuting Olivier director Melly Still (who also co-designs with Ti Green), there’s a thrilling command of a large stage and a massive cast – including a stand-out performance from Anna Madeley who sings with the purity of tone of the young boy choristers in the onstage choir and orchestra – that fills it utterly.
With some stunning choral work – and a curtain call Hallelujah Chorus that does for Handel what the Mamma Mia! megamix finale does for Abba, sending us into the night enriched – this is a Christmas show with a difference. It's also a triumphant vindication for the National’s new development processes that sees associate director Tom Morris, formerly of BAC, credited here for developing the project.
- Mark Shenton