“Coram Boy”, Chichester Festival Theatre

Simon Jenner in West Sussex
31 May 2024

Mid-eighteenth-century gothic is a niche genre, but Jamila Gavin’s 2,000 novel Coram Boy gave Helen Edmundson the chance to adapt – and in a few details alter – a novel of Dickensian scope and (occasionally) sentiment, plot-twists and reveals, for the National in 2005. Directed by Anna Ledwich, it’s given one of the most gripping revivals I’ve seen at Chichester Festival Theatre. Above all there is the music, realized by 11 choristers, three musicians, and several cast.


Louisa Binder and Tom Hier.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Set 1742-50, this is a three-stranded tale. Firstly, of a working-class villain Otis Gardiner (Samuel Oatley, grit-to-honey-voiced with a magnificent quicksilver viciousness) and his man-child son Meshak – Aled Gomer’s spellbinding register of trying to speak furnishes an almost musical theme throughout. Otis takes money for placing children in the famous Coram hospital, but in reality, buries them alive (Meshak unwillingly).

This is contrasted by the fortunes of an aristocratic young heir Alexander Ashbrook (Louisa Binder, also a searingly rapt soprano, later Will Antenbring, a sober shadowed performance), pursuing his musical brilliance at Gloucester Cathedral, opposed by his father.

Finally an interregnum of eight years yields a boy Aaron Dangerfield (also Binder) discovering his own musical brilliance at Coram, befriending Toby. Jewelle Hutchinson’s performance moves from enthused to fearfully terse then terrified, everything of Toby managed in darting strokes. They all discover how slavery resurrects itself amid splendour, how these strands resolve.

There is also an overarching critique of slavery given by a character in part complicit in it, the ambiguous sometime partner of Gardiner, Mrs Lynch (Jo McInnes) in a flaying denunciation wrought by a very personal code. Lynch, always dingily-motivated and downright, rises in McInnes’s hands to an avenging dirty angel.

And “Angel” is how Mishak views one person he sees at the Ashbrook estate, Melissa Milcote (Rhianna Dorris, sharply self-protecting yet meltingly ardent) who becomes involved with Alexander. After initial resistance they bond well beyond the decorum of courtship, though unwillingly thrust together by ambitious parents. The stand-offs, hesitations and sudden lurches of passion look full of shock and discovery.


The company. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Their parents include Mrs Milcote (a conflicted Debbie Korley, full of pain when she speaks) Lady Ashbrook (Pandora Clifford, warm but heedlessly bountiful, though generous) and initially unbending, even cruel Sir William Ashbrook (Harry Gostelow, ably transitioning from barbarian to doting without losing his truth).

In contrast to another recent revival here, it’s a tribute to this production that the sheer sweep of Simon Higlett’s set doesn’t dwarf the action. From its vast organ-loft wings and balcony, to polished sliding floors revealing partitioned earth through to Higlett’s sumptuous silks and homely-woven uniforms, (some actors miraculously disguised in Susanna Peretz’s wigs and make-up) the storytelling is both clearly-pointed and light on its feet.

There remains one ambiguity where Ledwich appears to revert to the novel’s solution with one character, over Edmundson’s. Otherwise this two-hours-fifty adaptation never dips, and Emma Chapman’s lighting suffuses everything from ballroom brightness, to candle-lit evensong, to tenebrous scoops of makeshift graveyard. At one point a greenish underwater tinge sheets over three characters. These moments are as keenly-lit as a Hogarth, one of the Coram Hospital’s benefactors, and Chapman is as good a storyteller as Ledwich and Higlett.

The healing theme is music, and it could hardly be more ambitious. The plot includes that other Coram benefactor George Frideric Handel (James Staddon in full “God rot Tunbridge Wells” guttural, also slavery-complicit Justice Theodore Claymore) around the writing of Messiah in 1742.

Max Pappenheim’s music is idiomatic and memorable.  His newly-composed arias (Alexander’s own compositions) also ripple through a gallimaufry of folksong arrangements in full descant mode: huge credit to the choristers and musical director Stephen Higgins. Chi-San Howard’s movement direction slides several tiers of actors and choristers on and off, as choreographed as the score.

There’s some very noir-ish noises off too, disjunct and strange as the twang in The Cherry Orchard. Sumptuous but as airborne as the production, the instrumental burden is borne by just three soloists: the acclaimed Steve Dummer on clarinet, William Harvey (cello), Saba Safa (violin, particularly prominent with the younger Alexander).

Binder and Rebecca Hayes as young Alexander and his equally musical friend working-class Thomas Ledbury, play off each other with a quickness and warmth that establish their character. Tom Hier takes over older Thomas, after a brief stint as kindly music-master Dr Smith: his accent shifts from Cambridge don to Gloucester cartwright’s son, and Joel Trill’s voice and dialect coach work is striking elsewhere.

Providing a chorus of innocence and thrill at the prospect of balls are Alexander’s siblings. They develop differently. As Isobel, Holly Freeman’s mix of gown-bought rapture matures with Isobel’s loyalty confronted with things most girls of her class and age (just 15 initially) never dreamed of. Isobel’s gritty realism contrasting with her mother, and her interactions with Dorris’s despairing Melissa allow a contrast to the masculine narratives elsewhere.

Isobel’s brother Edward (Milo McCarthy) manages to seem pleased he is no longer heir at a crucial juncture, and sister Alice (Tallulah Greive) provides a version of aristocratic obliviousness Isobel has sloughed off.

This is the most satisfying revival of Coram Boy imaginable. It fully realizes the gothic, and strand of Dickensian sentiment; but also how novel and play navigate far darker seams of  British history. Slavery, and Mrs Lynch’s denunciation of the ‘good’ or even redeemed characters towards the end, is certainly a surprise, though it has been building.

Beyond this the machine of British colonialism is exposed as starting far closer to home: with aristocratic noblesse oblige unseaming to a reflex exploitation of others that can, as here, boomerang. And that very word arrives from the next generation’s exploits. Coram Boy is redemptive, though like the finest theatre, its justice is provisional, its questions stubbornly lodge. The outstanding Chichester production so far this season, and theatrically the most satisfying.