Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 2, 2007
Coram Boy The National Theatre of Great Britain’s production adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Jamila Gavin. Directed by Melly Still. Music Director & Principal Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos. Music by Adrian Sutton. Set and costume design by Ti Green and Melly Still. Original lighting design by Paule Constable. Original sound design by Christopher Shutt. Lighting design recreated by Ed McCarthy. Sound design recreated by Acme Sound Partners. U.S. hair and wig design by David H. Lawrence. U.S. fight director Thomas Schall. Cast: Jolly Abraham, Uzo Aduba, Jacqueline Antaramian, Bill Camp, Dashiell Eaves, Xanthe Elbrick, Tom Riis Farrell, Brad Fleischer, Karron Graves, Laura Heisler, Angela Lin, David Andrew Macdonald, Quentin Maré, Jan Maxwell, Kathleen McNenny, Cristin Milioti, Charlotte Parry, Chrstina Rouner, Ivy Vahanian, Wayne Wilcox, Philip Anderson, John Arbo, Sean Attebury, Renée Brna, Charlotte Cohn, Sean Cullen, Katie Geissinger, Zachary James, Tinashe Kajese, bj Karpen, Katherine Keyes, Evangelia Kingsley, Eric William Morris, Daniel Neer, Nin Negri, Mark Rehnstrom, Martin Solá, Samantha Soule, Alison Weller, Gregory Wright.
Angels descending from heaven to guide wayward souls on their final journeys. Anxiety attacks given nightmarish physical form. A forest moaning with the death cries of children who've been entombed within its boundaries. A vicious battle aboard a ship ending with several characters struggling against the tide - as seen from beneath the waves.
Each of these sequences and many, many more spiral forth from the stage of the Imperial with the force of an earthquake's aftershock, both expected in their inevitability and unanticipated in the sheer power they demonstrate. There's not a single moment in all two hours and 45 minutes of Coram Boy, which Helen Edmundson adapted from Jamila Gavin's children's novel, that doesn't throttle you to attention with an unwavering devotion to the theatrical.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of the production, if one must choose from a conservative several dozen options, is that director Melly Still has accomplished nearly everything using fairly traditional of techniques. Oh, there's a revolving stage on the set Still designed with Ti Green (both also did the costumes), and that drowning scene involves a fair amount of flying. But its primary through the placement and vocalizations of the human set pieces and the relentlessness with which the play proceeds that Still seizes your spirit and doesn't let go, at least until it's time to elevate it with an exultant performance from the 20-person onstage choir. (Adrian Sutton composed the ravishing music, much of which is inspired by or adapted from Handel.)
If Still's wonders never abate, it doesn't take you long to realize just how necessary they are in making Coram Boy the transcendent evening it so often feels like. Beneath that extravagant exterior beats an unapologetically melodramatic heart that anchors the play in its mid-1700s setting even as Still struggles to wrest it into the 21st century.
Alexander's battles with his father, who disapproves of his son's music fixation and would prefer he look after their sizeable estate, climax in the father banishing from the house all musical instruments, and sending Alexander into the arms of his mother's cousin's daughter, the only one who can provide him with a temporary harpsichord. Meanwhile, Otis and his own son, the slow-witted Meshak, bilk ever more women, delivering their children more quickly to nearby shallow graves than to the Coram Hospital.
Months later, after Alexander has run away and been disowned, the young woman he left behind produces a baby that is promptly removed by the Ashbrooks' housekeeper, Mrs. Lynch. She, of course, is Otis's secret love, and expects Meshak to dispose of the baby in the usual manner. But a discovery of the makeshift cemetery ruins everyone's plans: Meshak goes on the run, Otis goes to the gallows, and you go into intermission on a wave of adrenaline unrelated to the details of the scabrous soap opera unfolding onstage.
Lest you fear vital plot points are divulged in the preceding paragraphs, fret not: Both the first and second acts - the latter of which is set eight years later and focuses on how two boys from the Coram Hospital become embroiled in this whole mess - are far less notable for what they do than how they do it. The tale's twists and turns relinquish any hope of originality sometime near the middle of Act I and, despite covering a bewildering amount of ground in over 60 scenes, don't find much room for salient emotional involvement either.
But Still's kaleidoscopic stage pictures pick up so much of the slack that - especially in the action-packed final scenes - you might momentarily believe you're seeing something you haven't seen a dozen times before. These achievements, though, seldom extend to the acting company: Jan Maxwell makes for a magnetic Mrs. Lynch, whose passion slowly gives way to resilience and then to violence, and Quentin Maré derives an impressive number of laughs from his brief appearances as Handel in Act II.
Most of the performances, however, are dependent on tricks in Still's infinite arsenal. Alexander is played by a young woman in the first act (Xanthe Elbrick), until his treble voice cracks and he dissolves (via revolving stage) into his older self (played by an overeager Wayne Wilcox). Brad Fleischer brings an aimless strength and menace to Meshak that don't pay off in any identifiable way until it's time for him to confront his father in the play's arresting climax. Bill Camp does all but twirl his mustache to signify Otis's inherent dastardly nature, but becomes almost mythically evil as his actions resonate into a key second-act subplot and the harrowing first-act finale.
It's those tricks you take away from the theater, rather than an appreciation of the intricacies of the playwriting or the characterizations (there are none worth speaking of); Coram Boy is not painted in broad stokes, it's painted with a sandblaster. As a play, it also doesn't compare favorably with the season's other epic, The Coast of Utopia. Yet in many ways, it's the more exciting, visceral experience, and leaves you with a greater appreciation of the theater's power for making an astonishing something from a ho-hum nothing.
Coram Boy might lack Utopia's historical, factual, and intellectual truth, but gets you more consistently and more potently in the gut. In the end, maybe that's what matters? I can't shake the feeling, though, that Coram Boy would be more remarkable still if it provided intellectual thrills on the same scale it does its superb spectacle.