Coram Boy, National Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Handel's glorious choral music - performed by a splendid group of singers - undergoes various kinds of ironic shading in Coram Boy, Helen Edmundson's stirring stage adaptation of Jamila Gavin's novel. Premiered last year as the National's Christmas show (for ages 12 and upwards), it makes a welcome return in a partially re-cast revival.

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given": this section of Messiah steals into Melly Still's excellent production in several moods - subverted to an eerie sadness, quickening with hope, then full-throated with joy.

It's apt, because the story, set in Georgian England, involves infanticide, showing how unmarried mothers were tricked into giving their newborn to a con man who, for a fee, promised to hand them to Thomas Coram's foundling hospital in London. Instead, he murdered them.

It's a complicated story, redemptively strung across two generations. But Still's strongly cast staging has a diagrammatic, humane clarity, making good use of the revolve to speed up time and highlight themes.

The piece works on a patterned contrast between genuine and warped philanthropy. The child-murderer, Otis Gardiner (portrayed with creepy vividness in both guises by Tim McMullan) resurfaces after the interval, enriched by trade, as a dandy in choice clothes. But his supposedly public-spirited household, where he hosts Handel's rehearsal for a Christmas Eve Messiah to raise funds for the foundling hospital, is a cover for mercenary perversion and the sex-trafficking of children.

Headlong, but less hectic this time, the production valuably brings out the affinities across the class-divide between the aristocratic Alexander Ashbrook (Bertie Carvel) and Al Weaver's simple-minded Meshak. Both are damaged by their fathers - Meshak traumatised by Otis's killing trade, Alexander forced to flee his home because of patriarchal opposition to his need to make music. Both are besotted by the lovely Melissa (Justine Mitchell).

Inventive stage-pictures pinpoint the ambivalent ways in which these worlds intersect - the cast miming in baleful slo-mo with pieces of the harpsichord Meshak has jealously smashed; an underwater sequence in which Meshak drowns, trying to hold possessively on to Alexander's young son.

In the second half, the theatre is filled with the sound of stifled sobs - mostly, I should add, from adult members of the audience. Highly recommended.

To 20 February (020-7452 3000)

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