Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre – review

Anna Ledwich’s new production runs in Chichester until 15 June and transfers to the Lowry in Salford from 21 June

Louisa Binder and Rebecca Hayes in a scene from Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre
Louisa Binder and Rebecca Hayes in Coram Boy, © Manuel Harlan

Coram Boy is an epic story with the compulsive appeal of a page-turner. It’s also a sprawling play, with a lot of plot strands spreading across a long evening. It’s a better narrative than it is a drama, but it’s impossible not to be engrossed and moved by its sheer scope.

Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s novel, its great strength is the way it mixes sweetness and savagery, the soaring music of Handel with a tale of murdered babies, disgraced women and fiercely opportunistic men. They are bound together by the story of the Coram Hospital – now the Foundling Museum – which was established by the kindly seafarer Thomas Coram in response to the terrible child poverty he witnessed in his native England.

In the first part of the tale, the venal Otis Gardener (played with cold-eyed ferocity by Samuel Oatley) preys on desperate women by offering to take their babies to the hospital and to safety – but in fact stealing their money and burying the children (in one case alive) in a pit. He is assisted in these nefarious endeavours by Mrs Lynch (a steely Jo McInnes), housekeeper to the Ashbrook family.

That family provides the other strand of the plot because its son and heir young Alexander Ashbrook, is a chorister with ambitions to be a full-time musician – and in thrall to the music of Frederick Handel, benefactor of the Coram Hospital who organised charitable performances of “Messiah” to raise funds. Unfortunately, his tyrannical father has other ideas.

All of this feels complicated even to describe and director Anna Ledwich has some difficulty in tying everything together, especially in the accelerating second act when the fate of Toby, an orphan who may be the son of a slave (beautifully played by Jewelle Hutchinson) becomes tied up with the fate of Ashbrook’s own illegitimate and abandoned son Aaron. There’s just too much going on at certain points, and moments of drama pass almost unnoticed in the rush to get through the plot.

A scene from Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre
The cast of Coram Boy, © Manuel Harlan

But the production looks gorgeous, with Simon Higlett’s two-tiered set, with a suggestion of organ pipes and cathedrals, both offering a perch for the musicians and also framing the action with painterly gravity, much helped by Emma Chapman’s lustrous lighting design which creates a world of shadows and sudden blasts of light.

The music is fabulous too, with young female actresses carrying the choristers’ parts. Louisa Binder makes a devastating stage debut as both Alexander and Aaron, the purity of her voice soaring above the occasional leadenness in the script. Rebecca Hayes as the young Thomas Ledbury and Tom Hier as his older incarnation fill the space with energy and glorious song, both sacred and profane.

In the end, the richness of the incidental detail more than compensates for the over-complicated narrative. It is a play with its heart utterly in the right place that for all its period detail, has resonance for today. As one character remarks, a society should always be judged by the way it treats its poorest and most unfortunate children. Quite.