AS ALL CHILDREN, I LOVED DRESSING UP and acting out stories. I think my very first writing was not a story book, but a play which I wrote in India, and somehow got my class to act out, and I have always loved the theatre. I nearly gave up studying music to do drama instead. So it was almost like a wish fulfillment when the National Theatre decided to adapt Coram Boy for the stage, and asked Helen Edmundson to write it.
Here is a Q&A which I took part in with an audience of school children.
How much has Coram Boy changed for the stage?
Helen Edmundson had to leave out many characters, but cleverly, combined the characteristics of some characters e.g. Mrs. Peebles, the pub landlady, and Mrs. Lynch, the housekeeper at Ashbrook House. She enlarged on Mrs. Lynch, giving her a larger and ongoing role throughout the play. There was also a change in the ending, with decisions about who lived and who died. But the skill was in stripping back to essentials yet retaining the essence of the plot.
Did you have much input into the staging of it?
I had no influence with the staging, nor did I want it, as I was thrilled with the concept and with the casting. But I was encouraged to make any comments I liked, and I believe I influenced some of the dialogue and interactions – particularly between the children. I hoped there would be a lot of music, but the decision to bind the whole production together with Handel was masterly.
When your novels are adapted, are you comfortable passing the creative reins to someone else?
My meetings with Tom Morris, the production developer, and Melly Still, the director and co-designer, reassured me that all the decisions they would make – some of which initially, startled me – were in the interests of getting the story across in a way which would make dramatic sense. In those circumstances, I felt completely confident about passing on the creative reins. They were incredibly patient with me, and must longed to have chucked me out!
What made you write Coram Boy?
A passing reference to a “Coram Man” trading in children in the eighteenth century, triggered a story which, the more I researched the history, the more I felt compelled to write. There also seemed to be so many resonances with the present day, so that I didn’t feel I was simply writing about the past.
How much is true and how much is fictional?
Captain Thomas Coram was a real man, whose foundation for the protection of abandoned or needy children exists to the present day. The plight of unwanted children and their exploitation was true. The composer, Handel, was indeed a patron, and “Messiah” was performed as a benefit for the Coram Foundation – as it still is today. The fiction lay in my creation of a family, and a set of characters playing out a fictional story set against this truth.
How has your experience of different cultures in India and England influenced your writing?
When I was trying to make sense of eighteenth century England, I realised that the India I grew up in was my way into understanding it. England was very class delineated, with very powerful social attitudes towards people who fell by the wayside, and where children were not seen as being the responsibility of society – except in the most minimal way. Likewise, India has much child labour and exploitation, and where women, in particular, are very vulnerable. Poorer Indian children have to pull their weight from the moment they can walk, and huge numbers of women and children who become destitute, are thrown out onto whatever resources they can muster, with little help from anybody.
Why did you choose to write for children?
I have always written for children, and it was the plight of children which attracted me to the Coram story. So although Coram Boy is a grim account involving the adult world, it was how children fared in that world which I wanted to write about, and with whom I felt the young reader would identify.
Do you think there is more room for imagination in children’s books than in adult fiction?
I think imagination is the very essence of all fiction. Children’s fiction might allow for more fantasy – perhaps – but if imagination is linked to empathy, then this has to be a vital ingredient for adult as well as children’s fiction.
What is the most interesting/enjoyable theatre show you’ve seen recently?
Apart from thoroughly enjoying Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Orange Tree recently, the most imaginative and exciting production I’ve seen in the past year, was Tim Supple’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford, with a multi-lingual Indian cast .
This interview was given some years ago. I can say that I’ve seen amazing productions since then including an Indian take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre in London, Richard ll with David Tennant, Matilda, Wendy and Peter Pan, Swallows and Amazons, and so many more.
"The decision to bind the whole production together with Handel was masterly."
Official National Theatre production poster
YouTube clip from stage production