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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Coram Boy
Olivier Theatre     Winter 2005-2006; revived with cast changes Winter 2006-2007

(Reviewed in 2005)

Having struck winter pay dirt with His Dark Materials two years running, the National Theatre has tried with a staging of another award-winning children's book, Jamila Gavin's Coram Boy. But I doubt that this one will prove as successful.

I've not read the book but, judging from Helen Edmundson's dramatisation, it is an ambitiously Dickensian look at all strata of eighteenth-century England, with its core at Thomas Coram's then-new Hospital (i.e. orphanage) for Foundlings (i.e. inconveniently illegitimate children).

The stage version, admittedly abridging things, focusses on a rich boy who breaks with his family because of his desire to become a musician, but who unknowingly leaves his cousin pregnant when he goes.

The girl has the baby in secret, and an agent is paid to bring it to Coram's. He is a conman who normally just kills such babies, but his son, who identifies the young mother with his imagined guardian angel, saves the babe and does take it to Coram's, where the boy grows up to become interested in music. . . .

You see where it's going. Along the way there are hints of some of the novel's texture, in the thematic use of music and boys' choirs, in the mystical level of the angel, and in references to the conman's sidelines in paederasty and white slavery.

But they're only hints. The play itself is thin of texture, slow of movement, thoroughly predictable of plot (Guess which three characters will be reunited at the end), almost completely uninvolving, and a couple of imaginative moments aside - strikingly uninteresting theatrically.

This is a failure on the part of adaptor Edmundson and director Melly Still to find a truly theatrical vocabulary for their story telling, as the RSC did with the legendary Nicholas Nickleby a generation ago or that Australian company did with Cloudstreet a few years back.

The play moves at a snail's pace that makes you long for something - anything - to happen within twenty minutes of its inevitability being telegraphed.

Helen Edmundson has reduced all the characters to one-dimensional (or less - the young mother has no personality at all, and the conman's son is just a collection of tics) stick figures, and uninteresting stick figures at that, who neither grow nor develop, so every member of the cast hits a single note and stays on it throughout

The school party of teenagers in the row behind me were bored to distraction throughout, and as annoyed as I was by their constant fidgeting and muttering, a part of me sympathised with their unhappiness.

Since much is made of the fact that key characters are boy sopranos, there's some mild theatrical interest generated by having them played by actresses until their voices break and male actors take over the roles, but that's almost the only bit of directorial inventiveness you'll encounter.

Anna Madely plays both the musical father and son as boys, sings prettily and generates a bit of boyish energy, but nobody else in the large cast escapes with much dignity intact.

I will say this - the hints of there being more emotional depth and texture to the book, along with the assumption that it can't be this bad, might lead me to read it or buy it for a young reader.

But, unlike the teachers sitting behind me, I would not subject youngsters to nearly three hours of this staging.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Coram Boy - National Theatre 2005

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