Charles Dickens would love “Coram Boy,” and not merely because he could have written it. Capping a varied year for the National Theater with as unabashedly moving and theatrical a production as the Olivier auditorium has seen in an age, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of the Jamila Gavin children’s novel is a godsend for discerning adults. On occasion gross (and always briskly paced) enough to keep the kids happy, play wraps its abundantly humane message in a hurtling evening of total theater that moves from infanticide and the slave trade to outright exultation and joy.
It doesn’t hurt to have Handel on hand as your show’s resident composer — literally so in the form of actor Nicholas Tizzard, who appears in the second act as the German-born music maker whose career was largely centered in England. With an onstage choir to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” just in time for the curtain call, “Coram Boy” uses the music from Handel’s “Messiah” as the thematic leitmotif for a story of children abandoned and/or lost, and of hopes and ambitions triumphantly realized.
Indeed, helmer and co-designer (with Ti Green) Melly Still’s exuberant National debut may well be studied by psychologists in years to come. It takes a rare kind of theater to bring a staid British audience first to tears and then to its feet, but “Coram Boy” deftly does both. What’s more, whereas the Christmas entry over the last two years at the same address, “His Dark Materials,” tended to leave Philip Pullman uninitiates out in an epically lengthy cold, Edmundson’s adaptation works whether or not you know the source book.
Action begins the century before Dickens, in London circa 1742 that’s rife with the novelist’s comparable mixture of vice and virtue. Two gifted boys, Thomas (Abby Ford) and Alexander (Anna Madeley), hear music in their heads, but that doesn’t stop teen Alex’s posh termagant of a father, Sir William Ashbrook (William Scott-Masson), from firmly stomping on his son’s artistic inclinations.
The action in and around the Ashbrooks’ Gloucestershire estate finds a grim London contrast in the evil doings of the so-called “Coram man,” Otis Gardiner (Paul Ritter), a child-murderer who tricks anxious woman into surrendering illegitimate babies. While Alex boasts his region’s “best treble,” Gardiner works double-time to debase the charitable intentions of Thomas Coram, who set up a London hospital for foundling children and had goodness “pouring from him” no less fully than Gardiner oozes sleaze.
The narratives ingeniously intersect, with attention spread among haves and have-nots alike. Lady Ashbrook (Rebecca Johnson, in a supremely gracious perf) talks of founding an orphanage on the Ashbrook grounds, leaving the Coram boy himself, Gardiner’s sweet if simple son Meshak (Jack Tarlton), struggling to articulate the depraved activities he has witnessed. In a way that feels absolutely right, Still’s direction doesn’t shrink from the realities of the malignity perpetrated by Gardiner; adults will squirm while their children shriek inwardly (or perhaps outwardly) in delighted disgust.
“Coram Boy” began as a project developed by NT associate director Tom Morris, who was brought into the building to help widen the range of repertory. (And to experiment with forms of theater that aren’t necessarily text-driven.) The result is a production that works on a narrative level while employing the sorts of physical theater and movement techniques that engage the body as well as the mind.
By the second act, we’ve leapt forward to 1750, our two prepubescent aesthetes are now proper young men and the now-prosperous Gardiner has moved on to a particularly sickly form of sex trafficking. There’s a chilling scene in which he inculcates one of his young black charges, Toby (Akiya Henry), in the necessary blandishments expected from his hapless youngsters. Will villainy prevail? That remains to be discovered as the play builds to the climatic Coram Hospital premiere of “The Messiah” on Christmas Eve, Handel’s music itself offering contrapuntal lamentation and rejoicing as appropriate.
A true ensemble in London’s enduring subsidized-theater spirit, the “Coram Boy”‘ collective never strikes a false or cliche note, regardless characters’ positions on the social spectrum. Even so, Anna Madeley (last seen alongside Simon Russell Beale’s “The Philanthropist”) brings the purest of both voice and emotion to a dual portrait of underage boys. (After playing 15-year-old Alex in the first act, she’s the not quite 8-year-old Aaron in the second.) Her unadorned truthfulness sets the standard for a matching seasonal entertainment that turns out to be a play, and production, for any season.