Photo: Manuel Harlan

Chichester Festival Theatre does it again, another simply stunning production that ticks simply every box. Coram Boy is a dark twisting tale of oppression, exploitation and deceit. It shifts from charming to sinister in a breath, from dramatic and disturbing to delightfully humorous as quickly and it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout as the plots twists, turns and gradually unfurls.

But this is no ordinary murder mystery, far from it, this is the story of social injustice and heinous crime at almost every level of society, from the aristocracy living on the spoils of slavery and industry, to the working class villains unashamedly taking wicked advantage of their social equals and their superiors.

Aled Gomer as Meshak Gardiner. Photo: Manuel Harlan

And so good is the story in all its complexities that I will make no attempt to explain it here and ruin the experience. What I will say is that this is must see theatre of the highest calibre. It starts with a stunningly talented and huge cast, with so many vital roles and elements that there are too many to mention all. That said a few must be named. Firstly Aled Gomer who plays Meshak Gardiner, the common thread throughout every element of the story, his is a beautifully observed portrayal of a man/boy dealing with an evil father and a sense of conscience. His father Otis is pure wickedness and Samuel Oatley delivers that superbly, never once slipping into a cliched Fagin like pantomime portrayal, he is chillingly good at being bad. Louisa Binder and Rebecca Hayes are perfectly cast as the young Alexander Ashbrook and Thomas Ledbury respectively, and their energy is something to marvel at.

The rest of the company take on multiple roles, so seamlessly that there is no confusion at all. And in addition to the large cast of adults, some playing children, there is an equally large, and talented cast of actual children. And children are central to this whole story, the time of the Foundling school, the emergence of orphanages and a time of desperate unmarried mothers, and of the people who would, and still to this day, take advantage of those women and their offspring.

The whole piece is set against George Frideric Handel writing the Messiah and music weaves its way throughout, beautifully performed by a small band and sung by the cast. There is of course Handel, but also music and a soundscape from the brilliant Max Pappenheim. He colours the whole with a subtlety that is masterful. Simon Higlett’s set is equally well conceived and beautifully realised, gently shifting from place to place so effectively yet almost imperceptibly. And Emma Chapman’s lighting serves both set and story well, never afraid of darkness, but in saying that never leaving we the audience straining to see. The costumes are, as one has come to expect at CFT, of the highest quality.

Helen’s Edmundson’s adaptation for the stage of Jamila Gavin’s novel is stylishly wrought, tension and tenderness, intrigue and shocking revelation, and above all a use of language that conveys a sense of time and place without leaving the audience grappling to make sense of the story.

Finally but by no means least, credit must be given to director Anna Ledwich who brings the whole together with such an assured hand that there is never a moment when I was not totally absorbed, from the massive ensemble scenes, through seamless shifts of both time and space, to the moments of intense intimacy and of chilling horror.

CFT have once again created a theatrical masterpiece, fight for a ticket, seldom will you get to see such brilliance on such a grand scale.

Andrew Kay

Chichester Festival Theatre

30 May


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