Coram Boy

Tue 17th – Sat 21st November 2015

reviews

Clare Cavenagh

at 23:13 on 17th Nov 2015

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Coram Boy was a very ambitious production which unfortunately didn't really work. The story is big and gut-wrenching, a tale of ambition, thwarted desires, serial infanticide, child abuse and a long-lost son. And there were a few flashes of brilliance in this production, but ultimately, it proved a little difficult to stick with.

This play opens with music, something which tries to become the driving force of the action - the catalyst which forces the characters towards the moment of crisis central to the action. Unfortunately though, the music just wasn't all that great. The attempts at singing on stage were a little feeble, although there were individually good voices; and the musicians who accompanied (from backstage, all but one of the scenes of on-stage playing were actors miming) were a little patchy. Music is hard to get right, particularly onstage, in a cast perhaps chosen for acting rather than singing. But when the music is such a central element of the plot, it's quite important to get it right, and this music was not quite convincing.

The set design was well done, with huge white pylons framing the stage-space, and windows of various kinds sliding in and out of view to change the setting. The use of projectors was interesting too, particularly in the graveyard-seizure scene early on, with macabre, flashing images of infants, lighting and smoke creating a nightmare feel. At other times, however, the use of the projector also felt a little bit arbitrary, just in there because it could be.

The decision to have the young Alexander Ashbrook (Ciaran Green), play his own son while substituting in Benedict Flett as the adult Alexander was presumably made to avoid any confusion about the age the choir boys are supposed to be: somewhere between eight and fourteen. But this choice also made the production miss an emotional trick. Reunions after many years are less effective if one party has not altered in the slightest when the other has changed so much that they're a different actor.

The two standout performances of the show were Joe Sefton as Meshak Gardiner, and Myles O'Gorman as his father Otis, and subsequently as someone much creepier. Kirill Reshetov was unexpectedly, almost inappropriately hilarious in his brief appearance as George Frideric Handel. Eve Delaney was understated but unnervingly cold and steely as Mrs Lynch, and Emily Mahon was endearing as Melissa Milcote. But multiple times in the play, emotionally charged moments were let down by details: strange staging decisions, odd positioning of the actors, or weird delivery, and ended up eliciting titters from the audience. This was a real shame, as particularly during the dramatic climax, there were some deeply emotional moments.

By the time the plot reached its frantic climax, I was on board with Coram Boy, but ultimately, that was too long to wait, and the audience fell in and out of the play at multiple points in the action. Although there were some great moments, great ideas, and great performances, Coram Boy unfortunately failed to fit together, and those watching couldn't quite manage to latch on.

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Joanna Taylor

at 08:48 on 18th Nov 2015

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Coram Boy is an ambitious project: two and a half hours of theatre in an eighteenth-century setting, entirely acted and produced by freshers, and demands on the actors ranging from an epileptic understudy to brooding tortured genius. There’s no need to patronise the cast and crew of Coram Boy, however: it was not excellent ‘for a fresher’s play’, it was truly gripping, provocative and stunningly portrayed.

Ciaran Green, firstly, perfectly captured Alexander Ashbrook, a despondent musical genius somewhere between Amadeus and Mr Darcy, whose passion and ambition occasionally breaks through his otherwise sulking exterior. Opposite him is Emily Mahon as Melissa Milcote, a woman whose defiance of Ashbrook’s arrogance soon transforms into love as she realises that they are both entrapped by their circumstances: her character takes on a surprising twist, which is played with stunning versatility. Ashbrook’s companion, acted by Stanley Thomas, was also fantastic; generally, the acting was dauntingly impressive.

Running parallel to the comfortable, aristocratic life of the Ashbrooks is the far more sinister reality of cruelty and crime from the murderous Otis Gardener (Myles O’Gorman) and his son, Mish (Joe Sefton) whose visions of angels and sudden fits created an eerie and sinister undertone. Constantly on the periphery of the seemingly idealistic domesticity of the Ashbrooks, Mish reminds us how close to hand suffering is, whether or not we choose to ignore it, and foreshadows some of the plot’s later climaxes.

Coram Boy is undoubtedly a lengthy play, but is kept engaging by its diversity, convincing acting and the tension of its twists and turns. All levels of the strict social hierarchy, and their respective issues, are explored, creating staring contrasts and deep psychological insights. The evil of the first half is largely overcome by the hope offered in the second, but nevertheless, this is hard-hitting drama. The interludes of song are also flawlessly interwoven into the play’s structure without becoming extraneous or musical theatre-like, and the lighting and staging are used innovatively, with certain areas of the stage highlighted and the full potential of the ADC’s stage realised.

The writing of Coram Boy is intelligent: rather than being neatly rounded off or a conventional love story, the second half of the play plunges us into the second generation, giving us a detailed and realistic view of life throughout the 1750s. Green continued to shine despite a change in character, demonstrating fantastic flexibility; it would be impossible to name all of the actors who excelled themselves: from the deceptive housemaid to the highly entertaining magistrate, Coram Boy is studded with stellar performances.

Coram Boy comes highly recommended, as a celebration of fantastic new talent in acting, directing, producing and musical performance. The play itself is consistently evocative of the eighteenth century, complemented by the talented musical ensemble and even an appearance from Handel. Intriguing and deeply moving, Coram Boy can rightly expect a series of sell-out shows this week.

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