It may have more dead babies than your average Christmas show, but Bristol Old Vic’s Coram Boy has all the other components of a knock-out. Coram Boy was first seen at the National in 2005 after Tom Morris (now Artistic Director of BOV) realised that his production of War Horse wasn’t going to be ready for Christmas and they needed another show. Nick Hytner’s goddaughter told him about a brilliant new novel she’d read, by Jamila Gavin, and Melly Still was called in to direct Coram Boy for the stage.
Aimed firmly at the over-12s (panto this ain’t), Gavin’s tale of fathers and sons, of music, murder and mayhem, translates wonderfully onto the stage. With clever incorporation of Handel’s Messiah (which is both part of the story and background to the action), Still’s production is here performed on the huge, open stage of Colston Hall, which is more usually a concert venue, as BOV is still undergoing refurbishment. This is community theatre at its absolute best – a professional cast joined by an (extremely impressive) community chorus, venues co-operating, local kids in the child cast: it has heart and feels very rooted, locally.
This is a beautiful tale, one that deals with fathers and sons in many guises. Helen Edmundson’s script does not hold back, and is unashamedly schmaltzy at times, but the wonderful costumes and sheer ostentation of having an orchestra and full chorus onstage make it easy to forgive the odd over-done line.
The music is sublime, of course. Adrian Sutton has taken liberties with Handel to great effect; we get snippets of the Messiah throughout, including a deliciously dark take on ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ sung over the grim business of the Coram Man, who does away with babes in the woods. Finishing with the Halelujah chorus is a nice – but necessary – touch to end on a high after a rather dark evening.
There is a serious streak of melancholy running throughout this show; even the reunions are tempered by the years lost to stubbornness and the friends lost along the way. As Handel (played with dodgy accent by Joe Hall) tells adult Alexander (Freddie Hutchins) to “find his joy” you can’t help but agree (for a fleeting moment at least). Fortunately, after nearly three hours of gore and near constant lumps-in-the-throat, we do get some redemption at the end, and at least one lost child is returned to his family. Phew.
There were moments where the production felt a bit too “staged” for my taste – it was not an especially naturalistic performance, not helped by the fact that in a space the size of the Colston Hall the actors had to be miked. The delivery (and I can only assume this was a directorial decision) was quite enunciated and actorly, with many lines being spoken outwards rather than to another character. At times, this felt a bit like a semi-staged opera or musical, rather than a play with music. I quite liked the fact that it spanned genres – and the music was terrific – but it did niggle a bit when this style of delivery made it harder for the cast to portray relationships.
However, the majority of the cast were fabulous, especially Tristan Sturrock’s extremely cold and scary Otis Gardiner (the Coram Man). Sturrock’s gimlet stare is pretty piercing in the third row, and he really embodies calculating evil beneath a thin veneer of respectability. Fionn Gill is a well-judged, wide-eyed and stumbling Meshak, giving him a good mix of vulnerability and cunning. Emily Head’s Melissa portrays a woman in turmoil extremely well without over-doing it, and Finn Lacey is an appealing Aaron. The star of the child cast is George Clark as the young Alexander – his achingly pure soprano soars through Colston Hall.
This is not your usual Christmas fare, but if you want an epic show that will make you appreciate your warm house and want to go and hug your Mum, then it’s well worth girding your loins, packing your tissues and getting down to Colston Hall.
Coram Boy is playing at the Colston Hall until 30 December. For more information, see the Bristol Old Vic’s website.