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Review: Coram Boy at The Lowry is ‘an ambitious production tackling a wide-range of subjects’

Coram Boy at The Lowry, based on Jamila Gavin's novel and directed by Anna Ledwich, delves into the dark underbelly of 18th Century England
Coram Boy

For most people, the mention of 18th Century England conjures up images of aristocracy and enlightened thinking, workhouses and the Industrial Revolution.

The beginning of life as we know it today.

But rarely, do people think about the ugly truth and the true price of survival?

Based on Jamila Gavin’s novel of the same name, and directed by Anna Ledwich, Coram Boy aims to expose the gritty underbelly of Georgian England.

Coram Boy at The Lowry

At the centre of this story, are the exceedingly wealthy and noble Ashbrook family.

Eldest son and heir to the fortune Alexander Ashbrook is away from home studying music, much to the chagrin of his father.

He meets Thomas Ledbury, a similarly skilled musician who is studying thanks to a scholarship. When the two return to Ashbrook House for Easter, their lives will change forever.

Otis Gardener exists in the shadows and he makes a living anyway he can.

Most notably, he is the Coram man. He takes babies from their desperate mothers and, for a fee, delivers them to the infamous Coram hospital, where they will grow up safe, happy and protected from poverty.

Two worlds collide

These two worlds collide as dark secrets are revealed and harsh truths demand to be confronted.

Coram Boy is truly held up by the strength of its actors, who, on the whole, give strong performances.

Louisa Binder doubles as young Alexander Ashbrooke and Aaron Dangerfield.

Binder’s vocals are a standout highlight of the whole production. Her talent makes it is easy to believe that Alexander is a musical prodigy as she sings beautifully and with ease.

Rebecca Hayes, who plays the role of young Thomas Ledbury, provides much needed comic relief that helps to break up the tedium of the first act.

Samuel Oatley showcases ‘impressive range’

Samuel Oatley displays impressive range in his portrayal Otis Gardener, the cruel, deceitful con man as well as the equally odious Lord Philip Gaddarn.

Coram Boy has a lot of children in the ensemble cast so the choice to have adults play the roles of children and teenagers is an odd one.

It feels unnecessary and does not particularly add anything to the show.

Simon Higlett’s set (built by Deadline TML) evokes both the opulence and the squalor of Georgian England, depending on the scene. It provides an eerie and atmospheric backdrop for the play itself and is easily transformed with effective dressing and props.

How is Coram Boy’s pacing?

In terms of pacing, Coram Boy is a tale of two extremes.

During act one, the story reveals itself gradually. Characters and storylines weave together so slowly, it unfortunately feels like slogging through a particularly dense period drama.

Here it is most clear that this is an adaptation of a novel; a scene will end and you can practically see a new chapter of the novel beginning.

I wish that the first act in particular was made more succinct. You are given so much unnecessary exposition, it drags the rest of the show down.

Things pick up considerably in the second act, though it is not always for the better.

Events occur at such a breakneck speed that key moments are often lost in the chaos.

This means that the last ninety minutes of Coram Boy feel less like a cohesive story, with satisfying character arcs and plot progression, and more like an extremely incoherent fever dream on fast forward.

Emma Champman’s excellent lighting design

The lighting design (by Emma Chapman) is beautiful and really helps to distinguish between settings.

It conjures the lavish candelabras of ballrooms and the dankness of deck prisms on a slaver ship easily.

Although it is only mentioned in passing, I would love if the lighting design reflected Alex’s Synestathia.

Perhaps the colours he mentions seeing when he plays certain notes could have been incorporated in some way.

This may help the audience build a connection with Alex, as well as emphasising his alleged all consuming love of music.

Beautiful costumes

Designed by Emily Kingston Lee and Academy Costumes, the costumes in Coram Boy are beautiful.

They fit with what we know of 18th century fashion and further illustrate the ever present class divide.

Coram Boy is a story about music, it is not, however, a musical.

Snatches of songs appear throughout the story but it is hard to see exactly what they add.

With musical direction by Stephen Higgins, each song and piece of music is played very well.

However I’m not sure they serve the story as well as they could.

Perhaps Alex and Melissa (Rhianna Dorris) could have shared a romantic duet? Or Otis Gardener could have had an epic villain anthem?

This may help to break up some of the slower parts and stress the importance of music as a theme throughout the story.

Coram Boy is an ambitious production that attempts to tackle many worthy topics, viewing them through a unique lens.

While this is a worthwhile goal, I am not sure if a play is the best medium for this story.

If you love a sweeping historical period drama, filled with complicated family dynamics and a twisting plot, Coram Boy may be just what you’re looking for!

Coram Boy is at The Lowry until Saturday 29th June 2024. Tickets can be purchased here

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