Coram Boy

adptd. by Helen Edmundson based on the novel by Jamila Gavin 28 Aug 2022 - 1 Sep 2022

A breathless tale of abandonment, music and love

Featuring a cast of 26, specially composed music by Colin Guthrie, and the musicianship of the superb virtuoso violinist Kate Conway, Coram Boy will transport you to a dark 18th century England where children were born and sold, and futures made or broken. With powerful storytelling interwoven with movement, music and choral singing, this production is perfect for the stunning Minack Theatre.

The “Coram Man” promises a safe haven for the unwanted babies of the unmarried women in 18th Century Gloucestershire, but what he delivers could not be further from this pledge. Meanwhile the first-born son of Lord Ashbrook defies his father in order to follow his passion – music. Spanning the course of 8-years, the story leads us to the Thomas Coram Hospital for Foundlings in London, where the German composer George Frideric Handel is developing his new work, Messiah …..

Coram Boy was adapted by Helen Edmundson from the children’s novel of the same name by Jamila Gavin, which won Whitbread Book of the Year in 2000. The play premiered at the National Theatre in 2005 to great acclaim and four Olivier award nominations, including Best New Play.

"Boasting a cast of twenty-six each member’s performance was superb....An incredible accomplishment all around" ****
(Elaine Chapman, Theatre, Film & Arts Reviews)

This amateur production is by arrangement with Nick Hern Books

Tower Theatre Company

Reviews of Coram Boy

Jenni Balow - at The Minack Theatre

For Unto Us A Child Is Born. These words strike a chord with most of us, and the reason is that Handel's Messiah was sung annually at the Foundling Hospital chapel in London from way back in the 18th century, to raise funds for the care and education of abandoned children.

The music is triumphant and it is the only oratorio that so many know the words to, but the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, was in stark contrast to the arrival of many babies born to mainly unmarried young girls and women in the early 1700s.

Society at the time did not support such a situation, and many simply didn't have the funds to feed or even find a home for their babies, which were often heartbreakingly abandoned or sold by their desperate mothers.

This is where former sea captain Thomas Coram came in, founding what was called a hospital, but broadly providing safe shelter for hundreds of foundlings from 1739, and was later supported by funds from the Messiah concerts conducted by Handel, who became a governor.

So, enough of history, what of The Coram Boy, a novel by Jamila Gavin based on those times, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson and presented at the Minack by the Tower Theatre Company from Stoke Newington in London.

This group matches the 90th anniversary of the Minack and comes with its own remarkable history, after winning three of the theatre's very much prized awards for best play of the season, notably The Producers, which thrilled its audiences in 2014.

This time, director Simona Hughes returned with a cast of 26, including many making their debut on the open air stage, linking the action to a striking harpsichord based musical composition by Colin Guthrie, with compelling live violin 'narrative' by Kate Conway, and a choir ensemble, all echoing Handel, of course.

Frankie Roberts enhanced the experience with sweet solos, starring as young Alex, whose teenage voice breaks, and in a startling scene, morphs into the adult Alex, played by Tommy Saunders, who cannot hit a note.

The villains of the piece are powerfully played by Matt Tylianakis, with sidekick Mrs Lynch, Angharad Ormond.

Thank goodness for guardian angel Meshak, touchingly and convincingly acted by Paul Graves, who took me right back to the never-to-be-forgotten characterisation of Smike by David Threlfall in the RSC's brilliant production of Nicholas Nickelby of 1980.

This was a long play, lasting two and a half hours, as it spanned eight years that portrayed the dangers of child and woman trafficking and slavery, abandonment and, yes, love, but it engaged us with its clarity and swiftness of many, many scene changes, designed by Max Batty, as it switched between London and Gloucestershire.

The entire cast was strong, and included an enchanting Toby, Nia Woodward, Thomas, Freya Croft Beringer and Finlay Macaulay, Melissa and Angel, Ruby Mendoza, Dr Smith and Handel, Paul Wilcocks, Gately Freeman, Janet South, Francesca Marago, Caroline Cromwell, and Omer Warman, and beautifully costumed by Kathleen Morrison and team, with lights and sound by Alan Wilkinson and Matt Ibbotson.

Hallelujah and thank you.

Susan Elkin - Sardines

Originally staged at National Theatre, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s young adult novel is big-cast theatre on a grand scale. So how do you make it work in a small space without the Olivier Theatre’s revolve and other high tech facilities? With elegance, flair, black curtains, mini rostra and a great deal of creative imagination from director Simona Hughes is the answer. She shows that this fine play can work anywhere if you give it free rein.

And Colin Guthrie’s evocative, clever original music is a magnificent addition with its Handel references and use of dissonance to connote fear, anxiety or anger. Pre-recorded by a small orchestra and effectively “led” by an on-stage professional violinist (Kate Conway) it adds a huge amount of atmosphere and colour.

Coram Boy is a complicated story set in the eighteenth century. It touches variously on slavery, the murder of babies by the sinister “Coram Men”, the significance of Handel in London, sex trafficking of very young girls for prostitution abroad, inheritance, paedophilia, empowerment of women, the redemptive power of music and our old friend “Sua padre” aka an unexpected (although the audience knows) paternity revelation – among many other things.

In a strong, all-age cast, Matt Tylianakis stands out as the dastardly Otis ruthlessly murdering infants (one of whom is, poignantly named Mercy) that he’s paid to deliver to Coram Hospital in the first act, He is then reborn as an utterly evil, smooth-talking, wheeling and dealing nobleman in the second. Paul Graves gives us a warmly sustained performance as the troubled, traumatised, epileptic Meshak and Nia Woodward delights as the initially playful, but then abused, Toby. Frankie Roberts, playing the music-focused reluctant inheritor of a big Gloucestershire estate – and then his son – is feistily boyish. She sings with sweet, intense musicality too so we are persuaded that, yes, Mr Handel would be impressed.

There’s also some pleasing choral singing in this moving show because one of the plot strands has Handel (who was a Coram Hospital donor) rehearsing a performance of Messiah. The whole cast rendering of “Hallelujah” at the end, once justice has been done and love has prevailed is a wipe-your-eyes moment – one of the many high spots in this well paced, sensitive production.

Theatre, Films and Art reviews

Tower Theatre in the heart of Stoke Newington is one of the larger Off West End Venues, established in 1932 as the Tavistock Repertory Company. The comfortable auditorium and friendly front-of-house staff make the long journey from central London worthwhile.

Set during the mid-1700s in the lifetime of classical musician Handel. We witness the cruel treatment of illegitimate children and their mothers and how some of the “unsavoury” corrupted upper classes used their position to abuse those they deemed beneath them, who were there at their disposal to increase their wealth.

Boasting a cast of twenty-six each member’s performance was superb. However, Paul Graves in the role of Meshak the deformed disabled son of Otis (Matt Tylianakis) the cruel corrupted child murderer was outstanding. Meshak never falters in searching for his angel and righting the wrongs taking place in front of him. There’s a strong sense of frustration emanating as his speech and social standing leave him unheard by many around him.

Movement director  Nevana Stojkov creates smooth scene changes as the cast move between their scene and doubles up as stage hands. I was especially impressed with the dual-use panels which depicted a stone wall for outside scenery on one side and the luxury wallpapered interior for the stately home scenes.

Director Simona Hughes brings to the stage a darker and cruel part of our history. Maximising the stage capacity available at Stoke Newington to enable the large cast enough room to manoeuvre freely. From the eerily graveyard scenes complete with statues to the stately home ball dance floor. An incredible accomplishment all around.

Coram Boy isn’t a familiar text or production to me. However, it was extremely moving at times and evoked many emotions throughout the two hours and forty-five minutes. Highlighting the appalling behaviour that took place around “unwanted” children during the 1700s, although it’s certainly not reserved for our History books alone and people trafficking continues today.

Disturbingly Jamila Gavin’s novel The Coram Boy is based on a folklore tale where a man used to walk the streets of London offering to take unwanted babies to the hospital founded by Sir Thomas Coram.

This production of Coram Boy is set to move to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall for the week beginning August 28th 2022. For further information about this performance and the story around the text please use the links below.

Four Stars

2nd from Bottom Review

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.