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Award-winning epic adventure

A superb spectacle of a show is currently on stage at The Lowry in Salford.

A superb spectacle of a show is currently on stage at The Lowry in Salford.

Helen Edmundson’s 18th century epic Coram Boy has been delighting audiences with its social and moral tale and it is easy to see why.

The story surrounds the horrific trade in abandoned babies in the grim setting of the city of Gloucester.

It starts with the story of young lad Alexander Ashbrook, who is heir to an aristocratic estate. He wants to follow his dream of becoming a composer and develops his love of music in the chorus at the city’s cathedral. He is nearly 15 and his voice has not yet broken, but when it does he will return back to his family home and his stern father.

Unfortunately, his father is intent on Alexander staying with the family and one day managing the estate and family business, but all Alexander wants to do is follow in the footsteps of his hero composer Handel.

He returns home for the holidays with his friend Thomas Ledbury, who is at the cathedral on a scholarship because he has a gift for music.

While he is at home, Alexander falls in love with a friend of the family, Melissa, who helps him to carry on with his music by hiding a pianoforte for Alexander to practise on.

Sadly for Alexander, his friend is returned to the school, but his father says Alexander cannot go back and must remain at home. The troubled teenager has no option but to flee the family home.

Surrounding this tale of rich 18th century life, is the very dark background of Otis Gardiner who preys on young unmarried mothers by promising, for a continuing fee, to take their babies and deliver them to a foundling hospital in London, founded in 1739 by Thomas Coram. It was established for the ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.’

The women think their babies will be nurtured and looked after, but Gardiner has other ideas. He murders the babies and gets his son, Meshak - who is visually disturbed by the events - to bury them, sometimes alive.

The baby of Alexander and Melissa is delivered to Gardiner who orders his son to bury it, but Meshak doesn’t want to and runs away with it, just as his father is arrested and tried for the murders of the babies.

What follows then is how, eight years later in London, two Coram orphans, Toby and Aaron, find themselves on parallel adventures while the great Handel is at work on a new score, Messiah, embodying the hope of love and salvation over evil.

The epic tale, adapted by Helen Edmundson of Jamila Gavin’s Whitbread Award-winning novel premiered at the National Theatre in 2005 before transferring to Broadway. It has been nominated for several Olivier and Tony Awards. It also won the Time Out Live Award for Best Play.

It is easy to see why it has achieved so many accolades. It is a brilliant production with an excellent cast.

Aled Homer plays the disturbed Meshak who flits in and out of the action, combining his nightmare of seeing angels while carrying out his father’s deadly requests.

Louisa Binder is totally believable as Alexander and has a lilting, melodic voice when she sings; while Rebecca Hayes as the young Thomas is also en pointe - especially when Thomas has the whole of the cathedral choir enthralled with the bawdy songs he heard in the taverns before he was sent to the cathedral.

This play, which is littered with heart-wrenching melodies throughout, reminded me very much of Les Miserables which I saw in the West End. Yes, it is grim in parts, but the story, staging and stand-out performances are something which should be seen. Absolutely outstanding.

Coram Boy is on at The Lowry until June 29. Visit http://www.thelowry.com for more details.

Review by Charlotte Williams

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