A review by Bernie Whelan for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Greenlight Productions presents:

Coram Boy


Adapted by Helen Edmundson from a novel by Jamila Gavin

Directed & designed by Alex Woolf and Sadie Spencer

Pleasance Theatre

April 19 – 23 2011




Coram Boy took the full house in the Pleasance main theatre back in time in more ways than one. This is Greenlight's first production, a refreshingly young and idealistic company 'committed to the idea of productions generating money for charitable causes that relate to the content of the play', hence 50% of the takings for Coram Boy will be donated to the Coram Foundation, the UK's first children's charity, set up back in the 18th century where this play is also set. Fans of period drama were in their element, the beautiful singing of the Cathedral Choir and Coram Boys of the play, accompanied by a youthful but talented live orchestra and the sumptuous costumes created by Pam Tait were worthy of the West End. This is old fashioned, realist theatre which tells an often brutal, Dickensian tale of wretched children put out of sight and out of mind by the often rich relatives who should love and nurture them.

At over two hours with a twenty minute interval, the play is perhaps too long, although this allows time for a myriad of characters played by a cast of nineteen drama students to evolve into believable individuals and a complex plot to develop through many twists and turns and an unlikely set of co-incidences which, in true Dickensian style, reunites divided parties in a redemptive denouement.

In Act I, we see into the privileged world of Cathedral Choir boys played by a cast of girls. Alexander Ashbrook (Tamsin Topolski) wishes to stay at the Cathedral to continue his musical training after his voice has broken against the wishes of his overbearing father. He befriends the more earthy son of a Cornish carpenter, played with great comic charm by Rose Wardlaw, and brings him home to the Ashbrook estate where the rift between Ashbrook father and son leads to disinheritance for Alex whose voice breaks very publicly in an affecting scene where he sings a song he wrote himself at a ball organised to celebrate his mother's birthday. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed housekeeper Mrs Lynch, played with great maturity by Eleanor Henderson, continues to supply unwanted babies in secret to her sinister associate, Otis Gardner (Lindsey Russell) known as 'The Coram Man'. They extort money from well to do mothers who are desperate to believe that their babies are given a good start in life in the Coram Foundling Hospital, but Otis forces his epileptic and developmentally disabled son Mishak to bury the babies, some still alive, in a shallow grave on the Ashbrook estate. Mishak is perhaps the most compelling character, convincingly played like Arnie from the film Gilbert Grape by Adam Farrell. He cannot bear to bury the son of his guardian angel, Melissa Milcote (Milly Thomas) who had a brief encounter with Alex Ashbrook before he disappeared and so brings him to the Coram school where he thrives and prospers by virtue of his inherited musical talent.
The cast do well to stage some ambitiously horrific scenes, including the birth of a child, the burial of live babies, violent beatings and fights, a drowning and a public hanging. Adam Farrell's portrayal of Mishak's acute distress, as he covers the tiny infants with earth, is very moving. Scenes where the younger Alex Ashbrook sings from the balcony for the miming mouth of his son, the Coram Boy of the title, are very affecting, chiefly because Tamsin Topolski really does have the heavenly voice of an angel.  A scene where the young Thomas Ledbury (Rose Wardlaw) sang a sea shanty to the jaunty fiddling of an even younger fellow player on stage, persuading the rather stuffy Cathedral choir to join in the singing and dancing was particularly captivating.

This really is a charming, fresh, innocent production in spite of its dark content, full of talent and promise from an inspired young cast. It is most definitely a show to uplift all the family at Easter.

Pleasance Theatre
Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7 9EF
Evenings: 7.30pm
Tickets: £12
Box office:  020 7609 1800

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