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Aled Gomer (Meshak Gardiner) in Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan
Aled Gomer (Meshak Gardiner) in Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan

Coram Boy: Review

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When Punch magazine first printed its cartoon about a curate’s egg, the joke was very clear. Fearful of offending his superior, the bishop, the curate describes the egg he has been served for breakfast as having “excellent” parts. For reasons that escape me, nowadays, we seem to hold that this fictional egg actually can be good in parts (rather than bad in its entirety).

Working on that befuddled modern interpretation, I declare this Chichester Festival production of Coram Boy a veritable curate’s egg.

First, the good parts: Simon Higlett’s striking two-level set design, and Emma Chapman’s exceptionally evocative and moody lighting design. We can add to that some lovely singing and some nifty “choreography,” courtesy of movement director, Chi-San Howard.

A scene from Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan
A scene from Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan

The rest, sad to say, is less than good. Anna Ledwich’s direction does little to help actors struggling to breathe life and genuine emotion into Helen Edmundson’s overcrowded adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s novel. There are too many scenes, flitting across too many storylines, too much repetitive, clunky, on-the-nose and bluntly expository dialogue, and it all goes on far too long. (At least 30 minutes too long, at a charitable estimate).

The story is set in the first half of the eighteenth century – the time when Handel (George Frideric) was living in London and widely held to be the greatest composer who had ever lived. Young Alexander Ashbrook (Louisa Binder who, by the way, sings beautifully) adores the work of this maestro, nursing ambitions to become a great composer himself. Problem is, Alexander is also heir to the largest estate in Gloucestershire. Worse still, his father, Sir William Ashbrook (Harry Gostelow), is a tyrant who cares nothing for music and everything for the wealth and power he will pass on to his eldest boy.

Not quite 15-years-old and with an angelic voice that has not yet broken (but is about to) the plucky Alexander faces down his bullying father (not very 18th century, I suspect). Obsessed with his art, Alexander has no time for the lovely friend of the family, Melissa Milcote (Rhianna Doris), until she sneaks a harpsichord into the cellar for him to play in secret, at which point, he declares her to be “lovely” and they have sex (it’s not clear what age he and she are, at this point).

Village simpleton, Meshak Gardiner (Aled Gomer), who seems to believe Melissa is an angel, inadvertently witnesses the passionate act, which strikes him as sacrilege. In a rage, Meshak destroys the harpsichord. Believing this to be his father’s doing, Alexander runs away from home (and so does not find out until much later that he’s left poor Melissa up the duff).

A scene from Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan
A scene from Coram Boy at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan

Having endured the sex scene, we are now treated to the birthing scene. Melissa is persuaded by the dastardly housekeeper, Mrs Lynch (Jo McInnes) to handover the newborn boy to the even more dastardly Otis Gardiner (murderous, scheming father of the disturbed but more or less decent, Meshak).

One of Gardiner Senior’s rackets has been accepting payment from young mothers in “difficulty,” with the promise of securing their infants refuge in the Foundling Hospital, recently established in London by one Thomas Coram (real place, real person, genuine history, worth looking up). The double-dastardly Otis has instead been killing and burying the babes, while pocketing the cash and other trinkets handed over by their desperate mothers.

Since this particular newborn is the child of his “Angel,” Meshak saves him from his father’s murderous intentions. The child (the son of Melissa and Alexander) lives to become a Coram Boy. What might become of the boy, now known as Aaron Dangerfield (Louisa Binder, again)?

I leave you to guess the answer. Expect huge dollops of cloying sentimentality, heaps of shamelessly manipulative plot-twists and increasingly implausible coincidences.

As Victor Meldrew would surely have said: “I don’t believe it.”

Coram Boy by Helen Edmondson and based on the novel by Jamila Gavin is at The Lowry from 21-29 June 2024. Age guidance 12+

Written by
Martin Thomasson

A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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Martin Written by Martin Thomasson