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February 22, 2007

Historian David Wootton finds that Coram Boy is piffle - but he then remembers that the National Theatre's job is to put on plays, not teach history: Coram Boy - Jamilia Gavin/ Helen Edmundson

Posted by David Wootton

Coram Boy
adapted by Helen Edmundson from a novel by Jamilia Gavin
directed by Melly Still
National Theatre, London
Olivier Theatre
29th November 2006 - 24th February 2007

David Wootton - Anniversary Professor of History, University of York - asks, can a play be piffle yet be good theatre?

Coram Boy has had two immensely successful runs at the National Theatre. I went on 21st February, a few days before it closes. I hadn't done any research on it and so I didn't know what to expect, but I have now checked and confirmed that the critics absolutely loved it. But what on earth is it?

There is music (Handel's Messiah - indeed Handel himself has a part). There is love, passion, and lost children. There is murder and mayhem. I had expected something that was in some sense historically realistic, and, as I had recently been to see the Hogarth exhibition, my head was full of eighteenth-century real life. But this plot bears no relationship to reality - we even have someone hanged just before the interval who reappears alive and well later in the play. And it combines in a rather uneasy way problems the eighteenth century was preoccupied with (the vast number of foundlings) and problems that preoccupy us (the sexual abuse of children, which they don't seem to have identified as a distinct form of abuse).

What it is, I decided two-thirds of the way through, is a melodrama. The word that came in to my mind was "piffle", and that's when it occurred to me that I was watching a melodrama. Now of course melodramas are immune to normal standards of criticism - you are either prepared to go along with them or you aren't.

But this play was a follow-up to the National's successful production of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, another very successful adaptation of a children's novel. I saw that and found it genuinely moving, and long afterwards scenes from it haunt me. It's also changed our domestic language - we now recognize that one of our dogs is Alison's daemon. I didn't find Coram Boy genuinely moving; I don't think it will haunt me; and I don't believe it will change my thinking. Most of the time I felt uncomfortably alienated from what was going on on the stage. But I saw it with a midweek, half term audience of parents and children (I say "children", but they were mainly teenagers) and they absolutely adored it. I have rarely heard such a roar of approval as the one that greated the end, and (cheated of the chance to applaud at the end of the first half) the audience even clapped and cheered to commence proceedings after the intermission. So what business have I complaining? - the National is there to put on plays, not teach history, after all.

And it must be said that there are a number of absolutely breathtaking stage effects - the hanging, for example; in which the body disappears as if by magic - darkness here works like a conjurer's cape; and a scene near the end where we are taken deep under the sea and see children drowning, which is all done with a very large plastic sheet and a few wires. Fantastic!

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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