Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

coram boy

Aaron, the Coram Boy (Fraser Martin, right) with the rogue, 'the bullying Philip Gaddarn (Eliott Sheppard) and (far left) his rediscovered father, Alexander (Jamie Evans). Pictures: Neil R Smith

Coram Boy

Gloucester Cathedral


Jamila Gavin, author of the award-winning children’s novel Coram Boy (2000), although born in northern India, has spent much of her life in England, in Gloucestershire.

It is set - in the award-winning stage adaptation by Helen Edmundson - mainly in Gloucester, where it unfolds evil doings and the unhappy feuding within a prominent landed gentry family.

Thanks to director Jenny Wicks, a delightful amateur team was co-opted to present this new staging of the play. Wicks and her co-director, Louise Partridge, delivered a sparkling, strikingly disciplined and freshly original staging of this significant, poignant story.

The cast was notably well-prepared: impressively polished and confident for an auditioned amateur group. No one faltered. The action was remarkably well-directed, and notably inventive. With this, an alert, refinedly drilled cast, it consistently hit the nail on the head, producing the kind of intense feeling essential for this occasionally woolly text to succeed.

Most of the staging was in open air. A kind of amphitheatre had been created beside the cathedral, generating an attractive, intimate feeling: it worked, and proved a vital element in this particular staging.

The two act play is (supposedly) in three parts, in the last of which the forsaken Coram Boy, now aged ten or eleven, emerges from the new Foundling (Coram) Hospital for abandoned infants, and by happy fortune is reunited with his deprived parents.

cor maids

The shrewd and determined Mrs. Lynch (Shirley Halse attempts to restore equilibrium in a torn family - Sir William Ashbrook (Paul Avery) and his patient wife (Julia May) 

The boy, Aaron (Fraser Martin) was such a persuasive young actor, notably clear in speaking, and no bad singer (in duet) that every heart-rending moment in Act 2 impacted and came across lucidly.

This was not entirely true of the first half, through no fault of the hard-working cast. The early scenes seem a bit of a jumble. Yet here these potential problems were largely surmounted. Lucas Bailey’s music embraced, artfully, certain well-known passages from Handel; a capable 13-strong adult chorus on an adjacent dais enhanced the shifting moods. The children’s choruses – girls and boys - shone. So did Bailey’s compact trio (violin, flute, keyboard).

The start introduces an unpleasant rogue, Otis Gardiner (convincingly played by Eliot Sheppard, nice and audible): outwardly plausible and amiable; but in truth a child-robber and murderer, he derives an income by defrauding helpless mothers unable to feed or raise their infants, supposedly placing their babies in a place of refuge, but in fact crookedly disposing of them.

Crucial to the story is Otis’s bullied son, the ‘simpleton’ (Thomas Terry, who moves in every direction brilliantly, like a firework). Aware of the danger to the Coram Boy he defies his odious father and runs off with this one baby, the son of young Alexander and Melissa (who unwillingly hands over their offspring),.and places him for safety in Thomas Coram’s benevolent new hostel.

To have full emotional impact this moving play needs some subtle, imaginative acting. The subplot involves the musical aspirations of two boys (Alexander Ashcroft and Thomas Ledbury – played by Bertie Bird and Elliott Cowling, both terrific vocally and as actors). Bird had an apt seriousness and intensity, the cavorting Cowling a gift for playing the audience; both sang terrifically.

Their character acting brought the staging energy and drive: they enlivened it, Later, grown up, they were played, ably enough, by Eddie Saunders (especially), and Jamie Evans. Several girls joined the boys in the choruses, attractively.


Finley Gould, the boy Narrator whose perfect, lucid diction galvanised the whole performance

Prime place among the boys went to Finley Gould, acting as a quite brilliant Narrator. Master Gould delivered his many lines with such vital aplomb, and was an inspired, superbly lucid speaker. Skilfully shifting from one spot to another, his vitality and, especially, mature pacing shone brightly throughout. A top-class actor in the making.

The older roles were taken by, above all, Paul Avery as Sir William Ashbrook, splendidly boisterous and bullying when he explodes at his elder son Alexander, refusing his becoming a musician. His virulence was beautifully balanced by his dominated wife (Julia May), a sensitive soul who argues her son’s point of view. Both were characterful, enjoyable performances,

Campaigning to prevent this kind of bitter skirmishing and recover the abducted infant was the forceful Mrs. Lynch (Shirley Halse, an admirable performer), who imports good sense and sanity at all points. The mother of the injured girl (the boy’s grandmother) was played with gentle desperation and poignancy by Lynnette Kay. Her daughter Melissa, the mother of Aaron, the Coram Boy - saved by the courage of the villain’s son - was tidily and convincingly played at both ages – as the young lass (Merce Leigh) who desperately finds herself pregnant following Alex’s departure., and her older self (Mary Dunsby).

So, Gavin’s novel and its adaptation were both well served. There was the periodic marginal drawback, as might be allowed for. But this production was not just a minor achievement. It supplied Gloucester with something of a major triumph.

Roderic Dunnett


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