Left – Lloyd Allison-Young. Cover – Joshua Wiseman. Photos – Clare Hawley
Epic in scope, staging and soaring humanity, Coram Boy is a must see.
Who would have thought it? Entering the tiny space of the Kings Cross Theatre is like entering the Tardis, where audiences are taken back in time to a spectacle of charging carriages, duels on the high seas, and eerie bush burials. Such is the pure, crystalline theatrical magic of bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company’s production of Coram Boy, Helen Edmundson’s dazzling adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s novel of the same name.
An outstanding ensemble creates a world of Dickensian dimensions with aristocrats, orphans, slave traders and a special guest appearance by the composer, Handel. Spanning three generations, Coram Boy is set during the Industrial Revolution, where the wealth of England’s aristocracy is built on slavery, and children are mere chattels and commodities.
Capitalism at its most callous and opportunism at its most odious comes in the figure of Otis Gardiner, charlatan representative of a charity to aid abandoned babies, trafficker in human souls, trader in human misery, entrepreneur of evil, splendidly played by Lloyd Allison-Young. His accomplice in the acquisition of the unwanted infants is Mrs. Lynch, housekeeper to the wealthy Ashbrook family, a shrewd fixer and pragmatist, acutely aware of the hypocrisy of the class she serves. Motivated by market forces rather than malevolence, Ariadne Sgouros’ portrayal is pure flint, sparking one of the great inconvenient truths of the narrative.
The Ashbrooks, on the face of it a happy, privileged family, is riven by toxic patriarchy. Eldest son and heir, Alexander, yearns to have a career in music, but his father, Lord Ashbrook, is appalled, Alexander does a bunk, and Lear-like, his father disinherits him. The household wholesomeness holed, the ramifications of the rupture ripple throughout the entire roiling narrative, creating a spectacular tsunami of incident, intrigue and inter-family conflagrations.
Ryan Hodson as Alex treads that fine line of self-centred and passion-focused, his callow youth forcing his hand to flee to the detriment of the rest of the family and, also, Melissa Milcote, whose love for him is genuine and complete, an affection which is sublimely illustrated in the playing by Annie Stafford.
As Lord and Lady Ashbrook, Andrew Den and Amanda Stephens-Lee convey convincing gravitas and notable nuance, and there’s a quiet nobility to Suz Mawer’s portrayal of Mrs. Milcote, Melissa’s mother. Alex’s great mate in music, Thomas Ledbury, is so charmingly played by Joshua Wiseman, exuding a gentle agreeableness, a penchant for sea shanty and some formidable fiddle playing that audiences will identify him as the kind of friend we all endeavour to deserve.
Petronella Van Tienen dazzles in the dual role of Edward Ashbrook/Aaron Dangerfield, fizzing with the effervescence of youth while Gideon Payten-Griffiths has a field day tripling as composer Handel, choir master, Smith, and cad magistrate, Claymore. Tinashe Mangwana is terrific as Toby Gaddarn, initially a beneficiary of the Coram orphanage, an apparently colour blind institution, who becomes an exotic commodity away from the benevolent, thrown to the malevolent, prevalent racial discriminant toxicity of the “real” world.
Joshua McElroy as Meshak, rebellious son and apprentice to Otis Gardiner and saviour to Aaron Dangerfield, is the embodiment of decency, a simple soul who knows the value of life and is prepared to pay the price. Emma O’Sullivan, Violette Ayad and Rebecca Abdel-Messih play multiple roles, impeccably inhabiting children, adults, and various forces of nature.
Production values match the high pitch of the performances, with a brilliant lighting design by Benjamin Brockman, and composition and sound design by Nate Edmondson. Directors John Harrison and Michael Dean have drilled their impeccable cast into a formidable force that engages the audience from the first salvo and offers no retreat of energy and enthusiasm till final curtain.
Tackling issues of human trafficking, infanticide, and the erosion of families, Coram Boy still manages to ascend the peaks of hope, to elevate the positives of our common humanity, to acquaint ourselves with the better angels of our nature.
bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company presents
adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson | based on the novel by Jamila Gavin
Directors John Harrison and Michael Dean
Venue: KXT | Level 2, Kings Cross Hotel, 244-248 William St, Kings Cross NSW
Dates: 22 Nov – 7 Dec 2019
Tickets: $25 – $42