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Is there a show in London with a better ending than the National Theatre’s Coram Boy? The story comes to an end as a boy is reunited with the parents he had never known he had, and his orphan friend finds a family in them too. The moment is so well staged that few eyes can stay dry. And then in a twinkling, for good narrative reasons (Handel is a character onstage here), the whole company burst into a Handel chorus – “For unto us a child is born”. As an after-show finale, they then give us the end of the Hallelujah chorus, taken at a brilliant lick, simple and thrilling. I can feel the goosebumps as I write.
Up to that point, opinions are divided. There are many good things in Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s novel and in Melly Still’s direction. Who could not be touched by a story that brings together orphans with the importance of music, and Handel to boot? But the story recycles too many ingredients that are corny even in Dickens: the deathbed revelation, the lost child who did not die, the stunted neglected son with a heart of gold. And Edmundson and Still keep repeating elements that were embarrassing the first time round. How many times do characters face front to the audience, look woebegone and then have a good scream? Frankly, most of Coram Boy feels like manipulative twaddle.
And yet the ending is not the only moment when its manipulations operate winningly. The production was new at the National last Christmas. I would respect Still more, however, if she had worked this time round to improve the show, but instead it has lost some edge. Too much of the solo singing is now flat and undistinguished, and Katherine Manners, in the principal boy role, is not an effective replacement for last year’s Anna Madeley. But Rebecca Johnson is deeply affecting in the main maternal role of Lady Ashbrook. At every point, the story is clear and often gripping.
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