Coram Boy

Production Details

From the novel by Jamila Gavin, adapted by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Jonathon Hendry
Assistant Director: Ashley Hawkes

A sell out at Britain’s National Theatre in 2005 and due to return to the Southbank in late November, Unitec-Acting is proud to present Coram Boy, from the Whitbred Award winning novel by Jamila Gavin, adapted by Helen Edmundson as the Graduation Performance for 2006 Year 3 actors. 

Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) described Coram Boy as “a rich and almost gothic drama, full of dastardly villains, cold-hearted aristocrats, devoted friends and passionate lovers, set against a background of cruelty, music and murder”.

Both as a novel by Jamila Gavin and as a play by Helen Edmundson, Coram Boy offers an extraordinary insight into the often dark and brutal world of mid-eighteenth-century London and especially the vulnerability of children. It reveals historical details like black balling, and the literal lottery by which babies were chosen to be either taken into the Foundling Hospital or cast aside.

As the story tells, retired sea-captain Thomas Coram, together with other inspired men of the time, like the great composer George Frideric Handel and the great artist William Hogarth, helped to found a refuge in London for the many babies abandoned on the streets by their desperate mothers. The Coram Hospital and the children who made it their home play a central role in the novel and the play.

Head of Acting, Jonathon Hendry, who directs the graduating actors, has drawn from his experience in working with Mike Alfreds, founder of the innovative theatre company Shared Experience, where Helen Edmundson developed her craft. The focus is on the actors, fuelling their imaginations as they play multiple roles using colour-blind casting and changing genders.

Hendry started as Head of Acting for Unitec the year this group of actors began their first year of study. Last year, as Year 2 actors, they worked together on the highly successful site-specific production of Marat Sade using 3 rooms in the old Carrington psychiatric hospital. In their final year, Coram Boy gives this talented group under Hendry’s direction the chance to explore more deeply the Artaud-concepts of the Theatre of Cruelty through its nightmarish sequences of infanticide and slavery that counter-point the rapturous visions of the mentally-disturbed. The emotionally powerful music of Handel is often heard and Handel himself also appears in Coram Boy. The plot abounds in parallels and the real and the unconscious exist side by side on stage.

Hendry said, “Coram Boy is a perfect piece for a graduation show. When the National Theatre premiered it last year, they had a huge budget. However, the playwright’s preface suggested that it be done simply, so we are fortunate to be able to explore the play in a different way – using a simple aesthetic, and making the actors central”.

The cast come from a variety of cultural backgrounds from the Pacific Islands to South Africa, and the set designer, Kasia Pol is Czech-trained from Poland. From this wide range of backgrounds they engaged a delicate and sensitive exploration of the universal elements of families, children, adventure, travel, slavery, courage, faith, hope, music and love in the English world of 18th century. The result is a vital and interesting story in which insurmountable odds are overcome and dark, frightening elements juxtapose soaring optimism and beauty.

In addition to the full extension of their acting talent, the cast is also required to perform Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Musical director Louise Britzman commented, “It has been wonderful to teach a group of actors the Hallelujah Chorus, and other complex pieces from the Messiah. Some were barely able to sing in tune as first year students and now they are amazing even themselves at their ability to sing pieces that even seasoned choristers find difficult. Their determination has been most striking. There have been many wonderful things in being involved in this process including making the soundscapes that enhance the dream sequences and some of the darker surreal elements of the play. And it has been such a delight to work as Co-MD with William Green.”

William Green, whose compositions include piano, chamber, choral and orchestral music as

well as a recent comic opera, has also composed some pieces specifically for this production of Coram Boy.

Green comments, “Teaching 30 acting students a demanding piece of choral music seemed a daunting prospect, as many of them don’t read music, but students have risen to the challenge.   Other Messiah solos and duets showcase the talents of our more experienced singers. Several other musical items have been composed for Coram Boy by English composer, Adrian Sutton. In addition, I have composed several short songs and instrumental interludes myself, largely in keeping with styles of music in the 18th-century, or slightly earlier. It has been an interesting exercise responding to the mood of a certain section of the play with an appropriate historical sound.”

Coram Boy continues a lineage of novel adaptations at the Unitec Theatre started by Head of Acting predecessor, the late Murray Hutchinson who put literature on the Unitec stage with War & Peace and Edgar Allen Poe.

This is certainly not a play for the faint-hearted, and is recommended for 12-years and older. With so many schools teaching mainly twentieth century history, Coram Boy provides an unforgettable picture of an earlier age. It is a rollicking good story and thrilling theatre that is likely to haunt those who see it for some time.

Sophie Henderson - GIRL 2 (1/3), THOMAS (as a boy), MOLLY JENKINS
Morgana O'Reilly - MRS LYNCH, LADY 3 (2/12)
Daniel Coppersmith - THEODORE CLAYMORE, LADY 1 (2/12)
Kate Simmonds - LADY ASHBROOK, LADY 2, (2/12)
Michelle Blundell - CHILD (1/3) ISOBEL ASHBROOK
Laura Turnbull - GIRL 1 (1/3), MRS MILLCOTE
Kayne Peters - BOY (1/4), EDWARD ASHBROOK, MAN 1 (2/11) CORAM BOY
Rory MacKinnon - BOY 2 (1/4), ALEXANDER (as a man)
Ben Kissel - CHILD (1/3), SIR WILLIAM'S GUEST, MRS HENDRY, MAN 2 (2/11)
Damien Harrison - CHILD (1/3) THOMAS (as a man)
Rachael Blampied - ALEXANDER (as a boy) ALICE ASHBROOK (as a young woman)

Live Performance Production Manager: Mark Ingram
Set Designer: Kasia Pol
Costume Designer: Suzanne Sturrock
Lighting Design: Brad Gledhill
Sound Designer: Jordon Greatbatch
Multi-media Designer:  Brad Gledhill
Stage Manager: Alana Tisdall
Technical Operator: Michael Bowerman
Wardrobe Supervisor: Sam Taylor

Theatre ,

Dirty secrets versus pure-hearted ambition

Review by Nik Smythe 12th Nov 2006

There really is a whole lot going on in this play, performed by nineteen graduates plus eight year one & two acting students as extras, and produced with the skills of technology student graduates.  Due to the mammoth technical scale of the production (65 scenes!), I was informed that the company had missed out on their final dress.  Thus the opening night, which this review  is about, was in effect the cast’s dress rehearsal. 

The story is a horrific one, at first as the grotesque baby trading/murdering scheme of its villains is revealed.  Brian Rankin is textbook angry as supercilious arch villain Otis Gardiner, while his inside accomplice and illicit lover Mrs Lynch (Morgana O’Reilly) is solid and composed.  As housekeeper to the wealthy family of main character Alexander Ashcroft, Mrs Lynch has the trust and confidence, apparently, of every wealthy family in town. 

And every wealthy family in town, it seems, has dirty secrets they wish to keep at bay from their lives and reputations.  This is where the horror becomes closer to the bone for just about any person with any degree of privilege watching the play, as we are shown that success is commonly founded on pretence and lies.  In fact, the line which summarises the whole story’s subtext for me is spoken by Mrs Lynch upon her arrest: "All wealth is built on the suffering of others."

Much more than just a slave-trading whodunit, Coram Boy is a richly convoluted epic of love, and friendship and duty, and passion and greed and family and – all the way through – music.  The voices of the company are strong and the deeply religious and intense music of Handel, as well as a tightly woven narrative, keep the play engaging even when some performances don’t reach the depths of their potential.

Other issues unique to student shows are prevalent, such as boys being played by girls for no artistic reason I could fathom; it’s just there are fewer female roles than male in the story.  Indeed some roles seem less ideally cast than others due to characters being assigned to a set group of actors rather than auditioned and selected from a larger pool, whereas others such as Benjamin Kissel’s haughty Mrs Hendry (no relation to the director I presume) is more than a token reversal of the females playing males trend; her character seems almost made for him.

That said, one thing that impressed me was the characterisations of the older Alexander and Thomas (Rory McKinnon and Damien Harrison), in that they were quite believable as adult versions of their teenage selves played by Rachel Blampied and Sophie Henderson.  All four gave very likeable performances, as did Esther Stephens as the angel-child Aaron Dangerfield.  Stephens is convincing as a precocious eight year old, and also has the most beautiful singing voice in a cast with many.

Besides the entertainingly self-important and very German portrayal of George Frideric Handel by Myles Tankle, another notable star turn is Ali Foa’i’s abused simpleton Meshak Gardiner, the son of evil Otis who rescues Aaron from a wretched demise in infancy.  Foa’i’s emotionally driven performance reaches a depth that a number of characters didn’t.

Whether it’s the technical demands of the production, or perhaps simply that the consolidation of 3 years dramatic tuition may be a little overwhelming; while generally competent, some actors seemed oddly distant; not wholly connected to their roles apart from moments of emotional extremes such as giving birth or flying into blind rages.

All in all it’s an ambitious piece, quite keenly directed by Jonathan Hendry, and supported throughout by a strong script and the powerful choir music (Musical directors Louise Britzman and William Green; voice tutor Linda Cartwright).  They did a decent job of the climactic mass brawl, choreographed by Steve Davis.  The story’s conclusion is somewhat idealistic, which is really a relief given the gothic-horror nature of the tale.

One part I found a bit distracting was at the Ashcrofts’ ball, where the guests move in slow motion around the edges, presumably so they won’t upstage the main characters’ action, whilst actually having the reverse effect on me.  But altogether Coram Boy has a lot going for itself in its own right, and especially as a showcase for the talents of a new batch of emerging performing artists.  I am pleased to see such artisans committing to work this challenging rather than playing it safe with work that doesn’t stretch their abilities so much.


Harriet Crampton November 13th, 2006

In the original stage production at the National Theatre, the Coram boys, including Alexander and Thomas, were played by girls, I imagine to more easily demonstrate youth, and provide treble voices for Handel. Maybe that's why Jonathon Hendry chose to do the same in this production. [Thank you Harriet. It's quite obvious now you point it out, what with the soprano singing requirement, not to mention that the scope of characterisation needed is far easier to acheive with an adult than with an actual child, especially in 8 yr old Aaron's case. - Nik]

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