The awesome Bristol folk I was staying with over New Year awesomely invited me along to the feertre to see Coram Boy, a Bristol Old Vic production performed in the Colston hall. And it was beautiful (well as beautiful as a story about dead babies can be).
At the end of the show every single member of the audience, myself included, sniffled and wiped tears away from their wide eyes and one girl next to me was applauding so hard her ring flew straight off her finger! We were lucky enough to have a seat just a few rows from the front of the stage so we could really see the faces of the cast and it was lovely to see how their faces lit up with pure euphoria, it was lovely to see just how much they had put into their performance.
This drama was re-written by director, Tom Morris, to better connect with the Bristol audience and it’s harrowing association with the slave-trade (or in this case human trafficking).
Coram Boy is a thrilling and an intensely emotional tale of dead babies and teenage pregnancy, human trafficking, family, love and the exceptional power of music. We are led through two entirely different worlds; the world of Otis and Meshak and the house of the Ashbrooks.
Otis pretends to be a Coram man, who takes babies from women in return for some money and takes them to the Coram Hospital where they are cared for and given a future the mother could not provide, but Otis pockets the cash and kills the children; forcing his son Meshak to bury the tiny bodies. Meshak (played beautifully by Fionn Gill) is in a state of mental frailty and while his father is driven by lust and greed, he is driven by visions of angels (who we discover are images of his dead mother). Although Meshak has a role in the death of these small innocent lives the audience never sees him as one of the bad guys, because he only does the bad things in order to please his father but when his father is put to death and Meshak rescues one special child we truly get to see his golden heart shine.
Alexander Ashbrook has been allowed to study music until his voice breaks. Within the church walls Alexander, the audience sees the true passion and talent Alexander has for music and we see that it is his whole being but when he returns home for a holiday his father has other ideas for his future. In some highly emotional scenes it is clear that Alexander will not be able to practice music with approval from his father, which he battles against until one fateful night where he makes love to Melissa, a girl he at first spurned away but slowly, through music, fell in love with her, and runs away from home. Unbeknownst to him that night he had conceived a son.
It is just after this point that the two stories connect. Melissa turns to Mrs.Lynch (caretaker of the Ashbrook household and partner of Otis Gardiner) who gives her secret to Otis. The baby is born, Melissa’s mother tells her that the baby is dead, which would be true if it were not for Meshak who saves the child and runs away from his father. Meshak sees Melissa as an angel and therefore the child is an “angel child” and must be protected. This time Meshak really does take the child to the Coram Hospital and through fate the child, Aaron, ends up back at the Ashbrooks home to perform music. In the last few scenes the truth is brought out into the open and it is a “and now they lived happily ever after” moment.
Apart from the magnificent acting, from all parts, that I cannot fault what stood out for me was the simplistic but effective use of space and props as well as the outstanding music.
The smaller (but no less important), changeable, members of the cast transformed themselves into whispering trees, neighing horses, guests at a dance, crying mothers, the ocean and a plethora of other pieces of set. I thought something like that would have looked a little daft but it worked so well. The most memorable scene for me was one where a few casts members waved a clear sheet of plastic/organza material over Meshak as he was saving his “angel child” and Toby from the waves. It was amazing how one sheet of plastic blown about by the cast was enough to convince me that Meshak was swimming. And using the cast to change the scenes (taking away tables, etc.) by having them dance or move in certain ways to change the furniture, instead of having them run off and on, was a great way to build from the previous scenes and lay ground for the following acts.
The music was close your eyes, look heavenwards and weep beautiful. I don’t think I can describe it better than that. Here is a wee advert for the production, that gives you a little taste of the music, but is nothing compared to the power of having a whole cast of extremely talented singers throw their whole hearts into their voices.
Coram Boy was beautiful. It was faultless. It was grim but enchanting and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a night in Bristol (apart from dressing up in drag and getting pissed).
Shortly after seeing the play I read The Guardian article about children playing children in this production, which was written by the original author of the book Coram Boy, Jamila Gavin. She discusses different ways child roles have been played, ie. by children, by adults, by puppets! and so on. And goes onto say that she was nervous about seeing real children play the roles of children in this play and that she would have thought she’d “prefer skilled professional adults playing the parts.” but was “won over” and I can see why. You could easily forgot that the children were just child actors/actresses and totally immerse yourself in the drama. They were flawless. They managed to be not only innocent but truly engaging in all emotions and the audience believed every word, every act. When then first group of children appeared on the stage, I thought to myself “Oh no! This is going to be like wincing your way through a school nativity or something equally painful.” but I was very pleasantly wrong and I can not praise these talented young stars enough.