In March 2011, the Bristol Old Vic main auditorium closed for redevelopment. One can only admire the tenacity and endeavour of the theatre’s creative team for seeing what many predicted to be an inconvenience as an opportunity to think bigger than ever before: the studio space has become a thriving, flexible arena for new work, Sally Cookson’s Treasure Island saw King Street transformed into a piratical paradise, and now, to cap off the year, Melly Still channels the spirit of the city itself in Coram Boy at the Colston Hall.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s award-winning novel is Dickensian in scope, following the lives of characters as rich and diverse as the musically gifted Alexander Ashbrook, the handicapped, good-hearted Meshak and his villainously opportunistic father Otis Gardener, whose plot – promising to take women’s unwanted children to Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in return for money before burying the newborns in the wood – binds the plenteous strands of the tale together. With such a sprawling theatrical tapestry to weave, success depends on toeing the magical line between grandiosity and intimacy, epic scale and simple storytelling. It is a balance which a team of over 150 have come together to strike.
There are some truly magnificent performances; Tristan Sturrock’s Otis swaggers, snarls and schemes so completely that even his wild mop of hair seems to exude arrogant menace, and as Alexander’s love interest, Melissa, Emily Head remains grounded and truthful even as the piece reaches its powerful but undoubtedly sentimental conclusion. The greatest plaudits must, however, go the local child cast; notably George Clark and Johannes Moore as the haughty young Alexander, and Thomas, his gregarious friend, respectively. Unlike some of the adult cast, these two never resort to histrionics in moments of high tension; watching these two fine young performers communicate the development of a friendship over shared musical ability, despite radically opposed social backgrounds, is a joy which in many ways surpasses the dignity and bombast of the mighty Handel finale.
Which is not to say that music doesn’t play a crucial role here – though there are moments when the 22-piece orchestra’s aural power makes the on-stage dialogue frustratingly inaudible, it is also the case that For unto us a child is born may never quite hold the same meaning again to any who pay attention to composer Adrian Sutton’s devastating use of the libretto in the chilling climax to Act I. The strength of Melly Still’s production are the subtle coups de théâtre such as the choice of moment for Freddie Hutchins’ to take over the role of Alexander from his younger counterpart, the haunting staging of a drowning behind a rippling plastic sheet, or indeed the comic majesty of Joe Hall’s wig (in a witty supporting performance as Handel himself), can stand equal in dramatic weight and emotional significance to the music which for many has been synonymous with Christmas for over 250 years.
Considering that Coram Boy counts the importance of family amongst its themes, the decision to populate the ensemble with local actors and musicians, in combination with Edmundson’s relocation of many central scenes to Bristol, resonates deeply; many acknowledge that theatre is collaboration – here, theatre is community. As such, though not everything is perfect, everything feels overwhelmingly authentic, and is, ultimately, going to make the people of Bristol who witness this true theatrical event very proud of their cultural landscape.
Coram Boy is playing at the Colston Hall until 30 December. For more information, see the Bristol Old Vic’s website.