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

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The Independent Culture

Systematic infanticide and child sex-trafficking are not the most festive of subjects, but the National - which broke the Christmas show mould with His Dark Materials - has another seasonal hit with Coram Boy.

Jamila Gavin's novel, set in Georgian England, takes to the stage a tad hectically in Helen Edmundson's adaptation. Given, however, that it's a story where the music of Handel matters so much, the advantage of a theatre version is that it can make this audible. Indeed, Melly Still's captivating production, with a splendid choir and small orchestra, ends with the company giving a sublime rendition of the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Before that, Handel's music is deployed with a fine sense of dramatic irony. "For unto us a child is born" is heard several times, its message of joy subverted to an eerie sadness, as this is a world where the distraught mothers of illegitimate babies are open to exploit-ation by the likes of the villain. Nicknamed the "Coram man", Paul Ritter's shudderingly rodent-like Otis Gardiner is the malign obverse of the real-life philanthropist who instituted the Foundling Hospital.

Instead of handing the babies to this establishment, he pockets the fee and disposes of them in ditches. In an eloquent touch, their cries of distress as they are strangled are ventriloquised by their bereft mothers, putting a grim gloss on the choir school's innocent delivery of "O death, where is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory?"

The adaptation skilfully pulls into focus the odd affinities between Meshak (Jack Tarlton), Otis's slow-witted son, traumatised by the atrocities he's witnessed, and Alexander Ashbrook (Bertie Carvel), the young heir to a country estate who flees rather than give up his musical ambitions. Both find themselves in opposition to unsympathetic fathers, and both are romantically obsessed by Justine Mitchell's Melissa.

These worlds intersect when Otis is called in to get rid of the baby son Melissa has borne the unwitting Alex. Meshak has other plans for the baby, and a tale of loss and reunion unfolds to a suspenseful climax.

Anna Madeley achieves a lovely, uncanny likeness to a boy treble sound as the young Alex. Ruth Gemmell is excellent as the Coram man's creepy accomplice and Ritter is even more repellent as Otis's metropolitan incognito, a peruked sex-slave trafficker. Coram Boy is a powerful mix of the horrifying and heartening.

In rep to February (020-7452 3000)

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