Infanticide, abortion, epilepsy, slavery, child trafficking, prostitution, class/gender/racial prejudice, physical and mental abuse, disability, illicit sex, intergenerational conflict. Hardly the stuff of the traditional Christmas show. Yet in 2005/6 the award winning historical fictional novel Coram Boy found itself being staged in the festive period with just these elements foregrounded by the National Theatre. So successful was it, that it was revived for a second run the following year. And now a thrilling production hits the stage of the Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington during what has turned out to be another defiantly non-Christmassy element – the hottest period ever recorded in the country.
Fortunately, the venue is air conditioned – just as well with a cast of 26 in those heavy costumes (all 100+ of them) and unforgiving wigs so skilfully brought together by Kathleen Morrison and a team of assistants. It’s just one of the many highlights on display in a well-paced and inventive production helmed by Simona Hughes which uses every inch of the opened out stage probably to better effect than any other show I have seen there. Things move at such a fast pace with many brief scenes – 62, count them! – lasting less than a minute, that at times it’s like watching a film though with Max Batty’s oh so clever set designs combined with first rate lighting and sound (Samuel Littley and Matthew Ibbotson) it’s never unclear where we are; this is no mean feat as the narrative spans eight years and travels from Gloucestershire to London and back again. There are scenes set in the depths of the countryside (a very simple but effective idea provides the trees), in a stately home complete with children’s play cottage, in (and I do mean in) a harbour and in the bustling milieu of 18th century London. The whole is underpinned by superbly intertwined music from Colin Guthrie quoting the works of Handel and some stunning movement work by Nevana Stojkov. The moment where the young Alexander (Frankie Roberts) morphs into his older self (Tommy Saunders) as his voice breaks will have the hairs on the back of your neck paying keen attention.
Originally written as a book for young adults by Jamila Gavin and adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, the narrative has the broad sweep of a classic novel with a mix of heroes and villains and a heavy emphasis on the Gothic tradition. Close attention is required to make full sense of the extensive dramatis personae and the various plot lines. In fact, I’m not even going to attempt a plot summary if only because of fear of spoilers – suffice to say there’s enough going on to ensure interest is maintained in what would otherwise be a very long running time. Eventually everything coalesces in a manner which Charles Dickens so successfully made his own. Indeed, in this tale of wronged childhood there is more than a hint of Oliver Twist about proceedings.
Certainly, the same desire to paint an entire socially diverse world is attempted and with such a large cast succeeds admirably. There are definite elements of Dickensian sentimentality at work. Although avoiding the excesses inflicted on Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, the character of naïve Meshak drives much of the action and Paul Graves carries this off with conviction and a charming innocence. At the other end of the spectrum there are some eminently hissable villains at work. Angharad Ormond and Matt Tylianakis are particularly noteworthy in this regard with their concern for pounds, shillings and pence outweighing any shred of morality or conscience. Also making winning contributions are Gately Freeman and Janet South as the Ashbrooks, Nia Woodward as a heart wrenching Toby and a radiant Ruby Mendoza as the spirited Melissa.
With a double baker’s dozen in the cast and a whole host of “support workers” it is impossible to mention everyone individually; suffice to say that the ensemble work is universally sound, and the movement of the various scenic elements exceptionally well drilled to provide a satisfying tapestry of a turbulent period in British social history. And I haven’t even mentioned the intriguing notion of Kate Conway as a “musical narrator”, silently watching events unfold but commenting on them via her violin – but now I have, so that’s all good. It’s that sort of inventive idea which makes this a rather special production which plays for another week in London before it fills the vast arena of the Minack open air theatre in Cornwall late next month. I suspect it will be even more stunning there than it is here, but wherever you chose to drop in on it, drop in on it you certainly should.
Production photos by Giulia Paratelli
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