Because essential building works are continuing at Bristol Old Vic, this year the famous theatre is putting on its Christmas show at another of the city’s iconic venues: Colston Hall.
Hot on the heels of last Christmas’s magical Swallows and Amazons, and the exhilarating outdoor summer production of Treasure Island, there was every expectation that Coram Boy (directed by Melly Still) would be just as breathtaking. And, of course, it didn’t disappoint.
Based on the award winning novel by Jamila Gavin, and adapted here by Helen Edmundson, Coram Boy is billed as “an epic tale of love, loss and reunion”. Set in the South West in the 18th Century, the play follows Alexander (George Clark and Freddie Hutchins) on his dream of becoming a musician – despite his wealthy father insisting that the minute Alexander’s voice broke he must leave the cathedral choir and take on the family estate. But after a passionate night with the beautiful Melissa (Mabel Moll and Emily Head), Alexander flees the family home – unaware that Melissa is now carrying his child.
Alongside all this is a much darker plot circling around child-murdering Otis (played by the mighty Tristan Sturrock – who recently delighted as Long John Silver in Treasure Island), who is known as the ‘Coram Man’. He takes the unwanted babies from poor and vulnerable women, who pay Otis in the belief he will take their children to Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in London, where they will be looked after. In reality, evil Otis kills the babies and – with the help of his traumatised simpleton son Meshak (Fionn Gill) – buries their bodies in the forest, pocketing the money for himself.
Taking in a variety of locations from cathedrals to orphanages, stately homes to slave tunnels, Coram Boy follows Alexander and the child he never knew existed as they embark on a remarkable journey, eventually to find each other.
As with Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island, it is the simplicity of the set design (by Anna Fleischle) that renders it most effective. From some of the young cast being draped over banisters to represent statues of church angels, to the extremely effective interpretation of the sea using just a thin sheet of clear plastic.
The stark messages coming out of Coram Boy – between the beautiful musical interpretations of Handel’s music, and the chilling singing – are the vital developments that have been made in terms of birth control information, abortion advice, and the care of children – both in the family home and by the state. And it is important to remember that while Coram Boy, set in the late 1700s, may depict an era of long, long ago… it was only in the early 1900s that scant information about birth control began to circulate, it was only in 1967 that abortion was legalised in the UK, and the care system still has a great deal of progress to make. Coram Boy is a historical play, but please don’t be mistaken for thinking that the issues it addresses have all been resolved.
Unsurprisingly, Coram Boy comes with a warning that it is unsuitable for those under the age of 12 – and there are some very dark sequences, involving crying babies being murdered, the bedraggled bodies of dead babies being dug up, an agonising and degrading scene where Melissa gives birth, and – most creepy of all – the heads of baby dolls with ghostly bodies appearing from all over the stage.
However, this is an overwhelmingly excellent production, encompassing a cast of 35, and featuring a full chorus, a live orchestra and a host of Bristolian children – who all gather on stage for a spine-tingling performance of Handel’s Hallelujah at the end: I had goose bumps all over my arms. Just wonderful.
I can’t wait to see what Bristol Old Vic will pull out of its talented bag next… And I hope it includes Tristan Sturrock again. The man’s a local legend!