Tuesday, April 24, 2007

18th Century Birth Control - Darker Than the Dickens!

"Coram Boy" at the Imperial Theatre, April 17, 2007

Continuing an impressive season of plays is another arrival from London, the National Theatre's "Coram Boy." Adapted from Jamila Gavin's novel by Helen Edmundson, it's quite a dark tale of pain, love, deception, denial, murder and sexual slavery. Also interesting is that the source novel was written for "young adults."

There are many familiar themes at play, Dickensian and Shakespearean among them. A brief plot summary (Spoiler Alert): In 1742, Alexander Ashbrook (from a family with station and money) and Thomas (not) are music students. Alexander is the eldest son, and scheduled to take over the family title and responsibilities but wants to be a musician instead. Coming home to address this, he meets Melissa, the daughter of staying with his family. They fall in love and conceive a child, about which he knows nothing when he decides to run away to pursue music. Melissa has the child, but her mother has decided that keeping it is out of the question and enlists the aid of Mrs. Lynch, the housekeeper, to have the child sent to the Coram Hospital, an orphanage. Melissa is told that the child was stillborn. Mrs. Lynch is working in cahoots with Mr. Gardiner, who claims to be an agent of the Coram Hospital, but instead demands significant cash donations for the child's keeping to take a child, then buries the child (sometimes alive) and pockets the cash. He has a half-wit/epileptic son Meshak, who helps him with the burials. Meshak is in love with the image of an angel in the church. When he sees Melissa for the first time, he thinks she is his angel come to earth. It is he who takes Melissa's child, but instead of burying him, flees and finds himself a position at the Coram Hospital and gets the child (Aaron) admitted. Mr. Gardiner's crimes are exposed and an execution is held.

Eight years later, Aaron is now the gifted musician at the age of 8, discovered by Handel who is working on "The Messiah" as a fundraiser for the Coram Hospital. Aaron and his friend Toby, who believes his mother was an African Princess, are placed with patrons. Aaron's patron is a composer, Edward Bruck. Toby's is Phillip Gaddam, who will keep him as a liveried house servant. Gaddam is the vilest of villains, "placing" young girls from the Coram Hospital into sexual slavery in Turkey. Meshak, still dim but devoted to Aaron, his "angel child." Aaron knows Meshak brought him to Coram, but can't get Meshak to tell him who his parents really are. All is soon resolved and several true identities are revealed, resulting in good winning over evil with plenty of casualties along the way.

While the story is obviously operatic, with its circuitous plot and twists, it is director Melly Still who, from casting to staging, brings us through this impressive night of theatre. From the use of a Greek chorus of sorts made up of young women, who play various roles including young boys and girls at Coram, the voices of the crying children as they are buried alive, and the clergy for whom the drama is performed (sitting above and watching, a la "Marat/Sade" - this time, however, it is the congregation putting on the performance for the clergy instead of the inmates). I'm not sure I could adequately describe some of the techniques and staging effects well enough to give you an accurate picture of the results, suffice to say that on a relatively simple turntable, the audience is transported from a forest graveyard, to a choir loft, to the deck of a ship, to the interior of several homes and rooms, to a gallows, to the depths of the English Channel.

Performances among the cast were all convincing. Special notice should be made of Jan Maxwell's Mrs. Lynch, the conspiratorial housekeeper who when confronted with her crimes, quickly turns the moment into one of self-reflection for her self-righteous employers accusing Lady Ashbrooke of selfishness for not funding more assistance to the poor than she had already. As Otis Gardiner, Bill Camp brings all of the bile and oiliness of Fagin, with none of the soul - a delightful villain you love to hate.

It is Brad Fleischer's half-witted, epileptic Meshak who gets the corner on sympathy. Wounded and handicapped, his Meshak still yearns for the love his father was incapable of providing. His death scene was a terrific execution of brilliant theatre craft.

Ms. Still is also credited along with Ti Green for sets and costumes, and understandably so. The thorough vision of concept like this couldn't be split completely. Paule Constable's lighting is the hingepin that makes all of this work so beautifully. Throughout, it is the music of Handel and Adrian Sutton, under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos that weave all of these aspects together. The "Hallelujah Chorus" that closes the show did feel a bit manipulative, since it is traditional to stand when this movement of the oratorio is performed.

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