Reviews Bristol Published 23 December 2011

Coram Boy

Colston Hall ⋄ Coram Boy at Co21st - 31st December 2011

A truly epic experience.

Tom Phillips

‘Epic’ is a word it’s hard to avoid. With its main house still undergoing refurbishment, Bristol Old Vic has decamped across the city centre to the much larger Colston Hall for this year’s Christmas show. It’s a venue more used to hosting the likes of Status Quo and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and while you couldn’t call its aircraft hangar-like proportions intimate, what it sucks away in terms of subtlety, it gives back in the form of opportunities for seriously ambitious spectacle. And those are opportunities which director Melly Still – returning to Coram Boy after her original production’s two sell-out runs at the National – makes the most of in what is, indeed, a truly epic piece of theatre.

Visually, it’s a stunning production, replete with striking, visceral imagery: the ‘angel’ of Gloucester Cathedral spreading her not-inconsiderable wings at the head of the choir stalls; the unearthing of the decaying remains of the Coram Man’s infant victims; the chase through a lattice of ropes on Bristol Docks; Meshak hanging in the water like something out of a Bill Viola video; Handel thundering at his organ high above the crowd.

Similarly, the orchestra and choir, performing live behind the action, add both a sense of theatricality in their own right and a rich density of sound, whether that be in the form of ominously rattling kettle drums and taut violins or joyous (sometimes ironically inappropriate) outbursts from Handel’s Messiah. All of which, of course, could easily smother the story – especially when that story involves a potentially baffling array of characters from across the social spectrum of Georgian England, not to mention a trans-generational plot about infanticide, slavery, inheritance, education and philanthropy. For a significant stretch of the first half, in fact, that story does get rather lost, as scenes switch hectically back and forth between the talented but impoverished Thomas’ burgeoning friendship with the up-himself Alexander, Otis Gardiner’s sinister foundling scam and Meshak’s growing obsession with angels. It’s as if there’s simply too much to focus on (whose story is this anyway?), and even when the interweaving plots click into place after Alexander rebels against his insistently philistine father, there remains a lurking suspicion that a bit of judicious stripping-down might have brought the play’s themes into sharper focus – and perhaps relieved the script of the odd clunky ‘that’s just what I was thinking’ moments.

That said, this reinvention of Coram Boy is certainly something out of the ordinary. It also represents a homecoming of sorts for a tale whose roots extend deep into the West Country’s history of human trafficking (in readapting Jamila Gavin’s novel, Helena Edmundson has relocated much of the second half to Bristol). The orchestra, the choir and much of the cast have been recruited from the Old Vic’s home town, and while it seems invidious to pick out individuals from such a huge ensemble that works its socks off from beginning to end, it would be equally invidious not to mention the likes of Max Macmillan as Young Thomas, Mabel Moll as Young Melissa, Tristan Sturrock as the elegantly villainous Coram Man, Joe Hall as a magnificently bewigged Handel or Lucy Black and Saskia Portway as a mirrored pair of oppressed women from either side of the Georgian divide.

Those in search of relentlessly cheery Christmas jollity might want to think twice – but anyone after something genuinely theatrical, with an emotional kick in the solar plexus, might well want to follow the example of the 250,000-odd folk who saw the original production of Coram Boy in London.

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Tom Phillips

Tom has lived in Bristol for 25 years. After ten years working in radio, became a freelance journalist, and is now chief sub-editor for Venue magazine. He’s published two collections of poetry (Reversing into the Cold War and Burning Omaha) and eight of his plays have been staged in Bristol and Bath, including Hotel Illyria and Arbeit Macht Frei. Having spent three summers idling around eastern Europe by train, he’s now studying for a PhD in travel writing at Reading University.

Coram Boy Show Info


Produced by Bristol Old Vic

Directed by Melly Still

Cast includes Ed Birch, Lucy Black, Grace Carter, Fionn Gill, Joe Hall, Emily Head, Freddie Hutchins, Saskia Portway, Simon Shepherd, Tristan Sturrock, Catherine Swingler

Link http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk

Running Time 3 hrs

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