Donmar Warehouse, London – until 12 August 2017
“The objective of this session is not to conduct a show trial. We want to learn some lessons.”
There’s a rather lazy trope around ‘unlikely subjects’ for a musical which accompany any show that deviates from the apparent norm. Yet given that the Best New Musical Olivier award winners over the past few decades have covered Argentinian politics, Scouse twins, confused animals, missionaries in Africa and post-Impressionist painters, I’m not entirely sure what counts for normal here!
The latest show to use musical theatre to tackle an ‘unexpected’ topic is Committee… (A New Musical), written by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke with music by Tom Deering. To take its full name, The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company, it uses Parliamentary transcripts to interrogate the public inquiry into the 2015 collapse of the children’s charity along with the millions of taxpayer money it had been given.
Using verbatim techniques, the show is directly derived from the interviews and depositions to the committee and so the abiding feel, musically at least, is of London Road (another of those atypical musicals), Deering’s score toying with dialogue, echoing phrases to create chorus-like refrains as in the striking opening number ‘We Want To Learn’. Torquil Munro’s musical direction of the piano and strings creates a beautifully lush sound and the musical treatment works well, for the most part.
Dramatically, the focus lies on the charity’s founder Camila Batmanghelidjh (a superb Sandra Marvin) and the chairman Alan Yentob (a vocally sure Omar Ebrahim) as they face questioning from the panel of MPs, led by Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin. It is fascinating to see the way in which the inquiry tried but failed to get to anything approaching the truth, Batmanghelidjh brandishing a slippery legalese that allows her to dodge much of the serious challenge here and we’re left to really wonder how little responsibility she believes she bore.
But Committee is short, not even 80 minutes, and as the questioning is interspersed with testimony from others who were involved with Kid’s Company, from key workers to Treasury ministers, one realises how thinly the surface is being scraped. Few conclusions are at hand here but also precious little investigation to the many many issues it raises – it thus feels dramatically slight.
It is thus a mark of the strength of Adam Penford’s production that it doesn’t feel unsatisfactory. His experienced cast exude confidence – Hanson is excellent, as are Liz Robertson and Rosie Ashe’s memorable Kate Hoey, there’s sterling work from Joanna Kirkland’s Chief Clerk who sets the scene with great clarity. Robert Jones’ design is also very well done, putting us in the public gallery of the committee room and actually making the side stalls a brilliant place to be (especially if that’s where you end up after a cheeky upgrade!). A fascinating take then, on an interesting story which could be, or should be, further investigated by pretty much everyone concerned, us included.