Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s young adult novel for the National Theatre in 2005, this large-scale ensemble piece is a good showcase for graduating student talent because there’s plenty for everyone to do.
On the other hand, even when it’s cleverly configured to create a playing space which is more or less in the round, Central’s Embassy Theatre is not the Olivier and the small playing area necessitates a great deal of entering and exiting which makes the piece feel clumsy at times.
Gavin’s moving, often horrifying, story presents Alexander Ashbrook and Thomas Ledbury getting to know each other in the choir school at Gloucester Cathedral. At the same time Otis Gardiner is ruthlessly exploiting wealthy young women with “inconvenient” babies by pretending to deliver them to the famous Foundling Hospital in London. Eventually as the years pass and Alexander is denied access to his beloved music the strands of the story are knitted together.
The set for this production is simple but lovely. Dominated by two large latticed shapes it clearly evokes the gothic fan vaulting of Gloucester cathedral and the music – which plays a large part in this show – is accompanied on upstage organ the rear of which provides a backdrop for the rest of the action.
Frances Knox is delightful as the charming but slightly uncouth, Somerset-voiced young Thomas – whether her character is singing a bawdy song, being kind, blunt or funny or trying to work out how to behave in society. Sandro Kalandadze is chilling as the utterly evil (not a single redeeming feature) and almost indestructible Otis Gardiner, a disturbingly convincing conman. And Lucas Button does very well indeed as his pitiful, abused, epileptic son. Yes, there’s some strong, well directed acting in this show.
There is a problem though, which the willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t quite cover. Alexander and Thomas are supposed to be musically outstandingly gifted. And although, Antti Laine and Frances Knox have obviously worked hard at their roles they sound like amateurs who’ve practised rather than highly talented singers. I recall the National had exactly the same problem with these two roles back in 2005.
And I’m afraid this review is based on the first half of the show only although that was sufficient to get the flavour of where it was going. Very unfortunately for the students and their director, Catherine Alexander, there were serious technical problems which caused the show to be lengthily stopped twice in the first half on the opening night when most of the audience were invited guests. Then an early interval was called. Given that this show is billed as lasting 2 hrs 45 minutes anyway these hitches meant that it couldn’t finish before 11pm even if there were no further hitches. So I made a reluctant decision to leave at the interval because it takes me two hours to travel home to Kent from Swiss Cottage and trains do not run all night.