Coram Boy | bAKEHOUSE

Image by Clare Hawley

A boy wants to become a composer but his controlling father forbids it and so he runs away, changing the course of not only his own life but that of his lover and their undetected unborn son. Adapted from the middle grade novel by Jamila Gavin, Coram Boy dives into 17th century England to explore class divides, the Baroque music scene, and the underbelly of the human trafficking industry.

The first half weaves together two stories of Alexander (Ryan Hodson), who only wants to make music with his friend Thomas (Joshua Wiseman), and the villainous Otis Gardiner (Lloyd Allison-Young), a man making a living out of misleading unwed mothers and taking their babies to the grave instead of the promised Coram Hospital. Sending your illegitimate children away for safe-keeping was a common practise during this time and the unfortunate ends of the children who ended up mistreated or murdered are remembered in other productions like The Hatpin and Les Miserables. Little did Alexander know that when he goes abroad to pursue his musical career, he leaves his lover Melissa (Annie Stafford) within the coram man’s reach.

Helen Edmundson’s script structures the action through short, staccato scenes around which directors John Harrison and Michael Dean construct movement sequences to convey bustling city streets, racing carriages, and more joyful scenes of dancing. With such a large cast swapping scenes frequently in the humble black box of KXT, these movement sequences and prolonged transitions give the production a sense of being rushed, constantly moving and getting on to the next bit of narrative, rather than relaxing into or reflecting on the scene at hand. When the production is allowed to breathe, like in the forest as Otis’s disabled son Meshak (Joshua McElroy) is burying babies amongst the haunting swaying bodies of other actors, this experimental use of the body as unconventional storytelling devise is most effective and impactful.

The second half of the production contains significantly less movement work, instead focusing on the story’s class and race critiques embodied in characters like the housekeeper Mrs Lynch (Ariadne Sgouros) and orphan Toby (Tinashe Mangwana), who is taken in as liveried servant for his white benefactor and forced to perform his blackness for ogling guests. The more stylistic choices of the production could have been pushed out as the story becomes more and more melodramatic with gun fights, drownings, and a faked hanging. Coram Boy is a story that leans heavily into fantastical coincidences and phenomenal miracles most clearly in the character of Aaron (Petronella van Tienen) Alexander and Melissa’s child who was saved from Otis by Meshak, raised as an orphan, and then returned to Alexander by the child’s benefactor, Alexander’s childhood friend Thomas. For his service as the heroic disabled character, Meshak unfortunately sacrifices himself and drowns so that Aaron and Toby can live.

The melodrama is understandable in an epic inter-generational tale written for children adapted with a clear admiration of the larger than life quality of the narrative, but it reaches the point of excessively extravagant in combination with Nate Edmondson’s grand composition and sound design. In a production that features George Frideric Handel (Gideon Payten-Griffiths) as a character, classical strings and symphonies is expected but they are used extensively to generate sentimentality in Alexander’s sensational quest for his son late in the second half to the detriment of the production’s sincerity. Additionally, the occasional injection of contemporary pop including “Run Boy Run” by Woolkid was jarring and disruptive of the overall carefully considered aesthetic.

Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design was beautifully evocative, altering the atmosphere with lapping waves, sinister shadows, and even some red and green washes to emphasise uneasy movement sequences for Toby.

Allison-Young gave a notable performance as the human trafficker twice-over with a chilling coldness that was well controlled and very convincing. Hodson and Stafford had a sweet dynamic as young lovers with the fiery self-certainty of youth that only blossomed into a softer, more refined relationship in their reunion. Stafford is a subtle and careful performer that belies her creativity. McElroy as the central figure of the production and the link between the three main stories, does well in the physically and emotionally demanding depiction of a neglected and abused disabled man. As a character written deep within the tropes of disabled representation in literature and on stage, McElroy conveys a welcome sense of compassion and interior autonomy in Meshak.

This is an ambitious production taken on by bAKEHOUSE with gusto and a clear enthusiasm for the size of the undertaking. While some technical and stylistic elements are inelegant and overtly sentimentalising, there are moments of beauty and prized theatre magic.

Coram Boy is running at Kings Cross Theatre from November 22nd – December 7th

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