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A theatrical warning about 'The Coram Boy' from
Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

And now for something COMPLETELY different:

I am writing to all my readers in order to warn them NOT to believe that The Coram Boy is worth sinking their hard-earned shekels into.

I had the misfortune to attend this melodramatic loser of a play at the National Theatre last night -- partly because its ostensible subject was the Foundling Hospital, which has a connection with Handel exploited by my musicologist husband in his book on Concertlife in London in the 1800s, and partly because it was recommended by several friends. I had been looking forward to it also because it had been such a hit with the playgoing London public that it had genuinely been brought back in 2007 by public demand (God save us!! Can any reasonably astute modern public have been more wickedly deluded??)

There was, as one would expect, some very fine acting, which was completed wasted on a plot so pitifully banal and dialogue so richly appalling that writers of TV soaps would have blushed rosily to find themselves having scribbled it, the whole perpetuated by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Jamila Gavin.

But let's start with the plaudits. Here was Al Weaver, wasted in the role of a traumatized young man forced by an abusive father to bury babies alive. Al Weaver has a face so malleable and a body language so profound that, even when not speaking at all (his fate throughout most of the play) he was, hands down, its top communicator.

Then there was the really excellent young Katherine Manners, an adolescent girl so wrapped up in her part as a music-struck lad that, even her manner of walking and standing completely convinced. Her singing voice was weak, but the singing was never more than incidental: I thought she had genuine, eager-without-being-whimsical, really grown-up-star quality, the kind of charisma that lifted every scene she/he was in. Also with a nice sense of comic timing was Debbie Korley, as Toby; though far less persuasive as a boy than Manners was.

One felt for Inika Leigh Wright, as the dastardly Miss Price, who was involved in a life-and-death struggle with the inane script and a two-dimensional character, but who never appeared to quite despair -- and also for Justine Mitchell, as the heroine (lost mother of the Coram Boy) who, though rather ponderous generally, did a marvellous impersonation of a woman in labour. Bertie Carvel also salvaged what he could, with lines as duff as, 'We had -- a child?' to comfort him.

The rest of the cast, however, more or less chucked in the towel. Poor Clare Burt, in her big scene where she told her daughter that her baby had not been stillborn after all, was resolutely cringeworthy, and after a while even the villains couldn't even be bothered to rant and storm across the stage. (One couldn't help envisioning them corpsing in a heaps once off the stage, and weeping with laughter on each others' shoulders.) However, with (seriously composed) lines such as, 'I'll cut out your tongue, boy!' to utter, and not a flicker of any characteristic not dyed in darkest melodrama, what more could they do? After all, even actors have bills to pay (or especially actors, as my actor friends tell me).

No, this story -- which involves such utter impossibilities as black kids in the Foundling Hospital, secret passageways, and even (God help us) 'Unto us a child is born' from the Messiah bursting forth as the son is rediscovered by (sniff!!!!) his father and mother, makes one's toes curl. The language makes no concessions to period, either, being completely London colloquial, which (uttered by bewigged villains in tights) is pretty funny. Indeed the scene when the villains fall out with each other sounded exactly as if it had been lifted from The Bill ('Nobody gives you second chances ... I'm through with all this stuff!')

I mean, God save the Queen. There has to be a limit, hasn't there? When sentimental, slushy, insanely-out-of-period gibberish like this is sold out in the National Theatre of (what is probably still) the world's most important theatrical city? Doesn't anybody DO irony anymore? Have we sunk into complete goo in our post-post-modernist age? Have Edmundson and Gavin absolutely no sense of decent shame?

I caught the eye of Al Weaver (who, as you will recall, was so marvellous as Meshak, the traumatized young man) as he was taking his bow, and caught a look of uncomplicated agony on that stirring, noble, ugly face. I wanted to pat him on the back, and say, 'This too shall pass, Al. You will go on to higher things, and this run will simply be like one of life's passing nightmares.'

For what it's worth, Al, I am on your side.

Copyright © 16 February 2007 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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