Committee review - we're all on trial in new Kids Company musical
Investigation into the charity's downfall is slickly dramatised at Donmar Warehouse
by Marianka SwainTuesday, 04 July 2017
Under scrutiny: Camila Batmanghelidjh (Sandra Marvin) and Alan Yentob (Omar Ebrahim) face the committee
A memorable 2015 parliamentary select committee hearing asked Kids Company CEO Camila Batmanghelidjh and chair of trustees Alan Yentob whether the organisation was ever fit for purpose. Tom Deering, Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke’s new verbatim musical – think This House meets London Road – asks the same not just of the charity, but of the political system itself and the way we treat the most vulnerable in this country.
Kids Company was the feather in the cap of David “Big Society” Cameron, and thus, despite repeated warnings, received hefty sums from the Government, including a final £3 million bailout just before its collapse. In October 2015, the cumbersomely named committee sought answers; that name is given a jaunty sting by Deering, and lends the show its epic full title, The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee takes oral evidence on Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company.
Committee, Donmar WarehouseThe stroke of brilliance is seeing the theatrical potential – and potential critique – in the format of select committee hearings (pictured above). Though its participating MPs are at pains to stress this is not a “show trial”, there is something gladiatorial and performative about the whole enterprise. Robert Jones evokes the drab green-seated committee room, but notably Batmanghelidjh and Yentob's faces are projected on large screens – it's part court, part entertainment. That's possibly exacerated, teases the script, by politicans' eagerness to make the Today programme's coveted "8:10 am slot".
Is this really the best way to learn serious lessons? The committee’s limitations are all too apparent, the demand for short and concise answers indicative of a complex argument reduced to combative sound bites. Yet Batmanghelidjh’s limitations are also laid bare: her inability to provide concrete figures, her dedication becoming pious, possibly poisonous self-justification in the face of reasonable queries.
A dramatic figure – rainbow dress amidst muted institutional hues – she's superbly suited to the musical form, rising from her seat to better address us spectators in the public gallery of Portcullis House in passionate song, and Sandra Marvin nicely captures both the conviction and slippery obfuscation. Similarly, Yentob’s mellifluous self-importance is, in reality, delivered as though expecting backing from a string quartet; Omar Ebrahim is delicious fun in the role, segueing smoothly from patronising defence lawyer mode into full aria.
Committee, Donmar WarehouseThroughout, the show is even-handed in its treatment. Kids Company was certainly filling an ever-widening void in social care, and made a significant difference in thousands of lives. But the cavalier admission that they didn’t bother to build up long-term reserves because they expected the Government to keep topping up the coffers is extraordinary, and so too is the deep hostility towards local authorities and unsustainable personality cult built up around Batmanghelidjh – Corbynites beware…
Fraser and Rourke heighten the argument by selecting key phrases, emphasised and layered effectively by Deering’s score – sometimes lush, sometimes sharply atonal. The committee speaking in one voice or in harmony becomes literal, in contrast to this renegade outsider, and crisp movement by Naomi Said breaks the monotony of a seated committee: tellingly, Yentob the name-dropper revels in glad-handing, while Batmanghelidjh is most comfortable playing with her children.
An excellent ensemble clearly and wittily embodies the major players, including Alexander Hanson’s smarmy but pragmatic Bernard Jenkin (offering the party line on PM May, in one of several topical touches; pictured above right), Rosemary Ashe’s fiery Kate Hoey, Liz Robertson’s silky Cheryl Gillan, Anthony O'Donnell's belligerent Paul Flynn, and Joanna Kirkland skilfully directing proceedings as the Clerk.
At just 80 minutes it does feel a tad abrupt in conclusion, however this is, of course, an ongoing drama – not just with the imminent arrival of Batmanghelidjh’s tell-all book, but the urgent issues like public sector pay that are still very much under debate. As with the Donmar’s recent The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Adam Penford’s involving production directs its big questions to the gallery: we are all on trial here.
Committee at Donmar Warehouse until 12 August