Review: Coram Boy, Colston Hall

23 12 2011

At the end of Coram Boy, a gut-punchingly spellbinding Bristol Old Vic production performed in the Colston Hall, many of the audience, myself included, were wiping away tears while clapping wildly. In front of us, a stagefull of actors, musicians and singers were taking their bows, the youngest of them slyly waving to family and friends they had spotted.

What a performance. I have never been so wrought with emotion at a theatre, or indeed here at a concert hall, as I was during Coram Boy.

Rewritten for a Bristol audience and our city’s painful association with the slave trade, Coram Boy is the story of unwanted children in the 18th century sold to someone called a Coram Man, like a tinker but collecting little ones rather than scrap metal.

The play is set over a period of perhaps 30 years, shifting in time and location, with children becoming adults, boys’ voices breaking live on stage, and then in turn becoming parents to more children, unwanted but in no way unloved or forgotten.

We can thank Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris for bringing this adaptation to Bristol, what he calls “the result of a very strange sequence of events”, mostly thanks to a delay in putting on War Horse during his time at the National Theatre in London, where the original Coram Boy played from 2005 to almost 250,000 people.

Rewritten by Helen Edmunson, adapting the original Whitbread Prize-winning novel by Jamila Gavin, one of Bristol’s best character actors, Tristan Sturrock, is the Coram Man, Otis Gardiner, brilliantly menacing. His son and partner in crime, yet lacking in brains, is Fionn Gill as Meshack, a physical yet deeply moving performance.

Mabel Moll shines as Meshack’s young angel, before she grows up and becomes Emily Head (right, with Sturrock), in Christmas stockings up and down the land in two days’ time as Carli in The Inbetweeners Movie. An actress familiar to millions, Head here slots in professionally to a large ensemble cast with poise and well-judged emotion.

Childhood friends in the choir at Gloucester Cathedral, Thomas and Alexander grow up to be played by two Bristol Old Vic Theatre School alumni, Freddie Hutchins in his professional stage debut, and Ed Birch.

Their young counterparts are two of the stars of the show. George Clark is young Alexander, straight-laced and with a fine singing voice, while Johannes Moore is young Thomas, possessed with remarkable ability, stage presence and comic timing for someone so young.

Joe Sharpe as Toby, saved from a slave ship, and Toby Yapp as Aaron, also deserve special mentions, but all of the young cast should be applauded, becoming everything from cathedral statues to neighing horses.

The only gripe was the occasional line missed either because it was said too quietly or because of malfunctioning microphones.

A comic turn comes from Instant Wit’s Joe Hall as a corpulent and extravagantly wigged Handel, whose music is so instrumental to the production, a choir of more than 60 and a 22-strong orchestra vital to proceedings. “Unto us a child is born, Unto us a son is given” takes on new meaning as never before.

Handel’s score, taken from both Messiah and the opera Theodora, is majestic, and the original music by Adrian Sutton is at turns spritely, at other turns as menacing as what unfolds on stage.

For make no bones about it, this is not a jolly Christmas show, but a dark and often deeply disturbing story featuring babies being brutally murdered, children forced into slavery and evil barely lurking under the surface, philanthropy a disguise for brutality.

Director Melly Still gives us a wonderfully inventive production, spectacular staging utilising all the space that the Colston Hall has to offer. Two particularly memorable scenes feature a plastic sheet enveloping Meshak as he swims in the sea and ropes thrown from on high becoming a boat.

The cries of anguish sound all too true; the horror when babies’ bones are discovered brutal in its realism. But I shed tears of happiness as well as sorrow, for this is also a joyful production.

Majestic in its scope and magnificent in its execution, Coram Boy is a triumph.

Coram Boy is at the Colston Hall until December 30. Click here for more information.