Coram Boy is the much anticipated, first community production at Nottingham Playhouse under the Artistic Directorship of Adam Penford. As with the whole of the programme at the Playhouse since his arrival, Coram Boy is ambitious in scope and scale, and actively seeks to promote diversity and inclusivity. The large community cast deliver a highly polished and heartfelt performance in the very grand, unique setting of the Nottingham Albert Hall.
Jamila Gavin wrote the original novel, which won the 2000 Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year. It is hardly a typical children’s book, but Gavin has stated that one must not underestimate what children can take on board. She is certainly not afraid of tackling the issues raised, head on, including slavery, child abduction and institutionalised child abuse. It is uncomfortable and disturbing to recognise the parallels in today’s world.
This true story centres on the Foundling Hospital, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, set up to help and support those children who found themselves orphaned or homeless. Unusually, their education included music, and this becomes central to the story of Alexander and Thomas in the first act. But where someone hopes to do good, others see only advantage for themselves. Otis Gardiner realises there is money to be made in taking charge of illegitimate children whose mothers are desperate to hide them, and he promises to deliver them to the Foundling Hospital. Few of them make it, some are killed, some are sold as slaves. Eight years later, and we follow the tale of Aaron and Toby, two young boys who have been brought up at the Foundling Hospital, who want to trace their birth stories.
The role of Otis Gardiner is played by Tim Samuels, one of only two professional actors in the cast, and he presents this despicable personage with steely assurance. Jack Quarton plays the adult Thomas Ledbury, choir master and wit with his usual aplomb. Quarton is also Associate Director for the piece. The community acting cast of over thirty sits alongside the professional performers with no discernible difference. The many supporting roles are detailed and believable, clearly a great deal of thought has gone into the character development. Just a few to mention in particular: Amanda Pearce as Gardiner’s accomplice is scarily cold and calculating. Jak Truswell as Gardiner’s son Meshak, plays a simple character tormented by his own guilt with great emotion, and is very convincing. Other supporting roles, such as Michelle Bland as Lady Ashbrook, Kevin Brown as Sir William Ashbrook, Suzanne Barlow as Mrs Milcote and Richard Brown as Handel, are all presented with maturity and confidence, and it must be testament to a solid rehearsal schedule, their individual talents, and strong direction which has enabled these personalities to feel so real.
Amongst the younger cast, there are equally impressive portrayals. Karr Kennedy as the young Alexander Ashbrook gives an outstanding performance in this lead role. Karr’s performance is assured and mature, for a character that is headstrong and ambitious. Rachel Burbridge as the young Thomas Ledbury has a wonderful innocence and energy. Cody Harrison as Aaron Dangerfield has the clear, soaring soprano voice of a choirboy and alongside a very measured performance by Blaise Koussai as Toby Gaddarn, they present the second half of the story with clarity and stamina.
The musical element of the story, under Musical Director Alex Patterson, is brought to the fore featuring the listed Binns Organ in the Albert Hall and it is a treat to hear it played so skilfully by organist John Keys. The string quartet, the Helix Ensemble, create a wonderful sound, and in the grand and vaulted space of the Albert Hall, it really does feel that one has been transported back in time. There is a community choir of over 30, and they too give a fantastically accomplished performance of some complicated music, in particular, excerpts from Handel’s’ Messiah. The acoustics of the hall are clearly suited to music, and there has undoubtedly been a good deal of hard work by Sound Designer Adam McCready to balance this with the need for the wordy script to be delivered.
Designer Kevin Jenkins deftly transforms the Albert Hall to a stage and the addition of plants and trees adds texture and depth. Lighting designer Will Welch takes full advantage of the wonderful shapes and spaces to create more intimate moments and uses the curves of the organ to maximum effect.
The adaptation of the book for the stage by Helen Edmundson seems to have included every twist and turn of the plot, leading to 65 scenes in total, a statistic which Penford states is ‘more like a screenplay’. Despite these odds, the story keeps flowing and moving and scene changes are swift and smooth, but one does wonder if a bit of judicious pruning in the adaptation would have made everyone’s life easier. However, what has been achieved is an astonishing, accomplished production of a difficult and demanding story, with a hugely talented community cast and a very hard working production team. Congratulations must go to all the cast and crew for what has been achieved and for the ambition involved in tackling such a difficult and demanding production.
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