Donmar Warehouse, London – until February 2017
THE MIRACLE THAT FAILED
The subtitle is “The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids’ Company”. Josie Rourke, with Hadley Fraser and Tom Deering’s music, has made a sort of opera from the verbatim public record of that day in October 2015, when the most normally “un-sexy” of Select Committees, under Bernard Jenkin MP, interrogated Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded and led the charity for two decades, and her Chairman Alan Yentob.
It had gone broke, salaries unpaid, and abruptly closed after accepting over the years £ 42m of public subsidy including a final, desperate £3m emergency bung. Indeed the rather cruel payoff is Batmanghelidh’s indignant “On what basis have you decided this is a failing charity?” and Jenkin’s “Because it’s gone bust!”. She, however, is allowed one last majestic aria about poor and abused children failed by the state.
Which, of course, they often are. And that derogation of social duty, erosion of social services and lack of trust in public organization is one reason that KidsCo lasted so long, a refuge and succour to its “self-referred” young clients. It impressed many ministers and donors, ticked the box for Cameron’s ‘big society’, and was allowed to suck up public money with little oversight by its puffed-up, self-satisfied networking-freak of a chairman. Who, in a rare descent into plain speaking, replied to the question of why they didn’t “restructure” with the words “We believed the government was going to give us more money”.
It is a fascinating and still unresolved story, not least because of the exuberant, eccentric figure of Camila herself; and the way a select committee works is actually not undramatic, especially when made surreal as the panel rise up, sing choruses (“We want to learn! This is not a show trial, we want to learn!” ) or read written statements from outside witnesses. The interrogators are all pitch-perfect, with that characteristic MP-mixture of earnest administrator and “showbiz-for-ugly-people”. Notably there is Alexander Hanson’s urbanely civil Jenkin, Liz Robertson’s sarky Cheryl Gillan, Rosemary Ashe as the maverick Kate Hoey and the Welsh terrier Paul Flynn (Anthony O’Donnell).
But of course the focus is on the odd couple who sit before them (and are seen up on screens, and occasionally rise to pace the floor, singing) . Sandra Marvin is unnervingly like Camila in multicoloured dress and turban, gait, high-pitched speech, and unnerving smile: when she sings the sincerity of both the woman’s good intentions and her dangerous self-belief are gloriously magnified. As Yentob, Omar Ebrahim is not quite the cornered-rat one remembers from the TV relay (possibly because he’s a splendid baritone, which gives a Verdiesque dignity even to his absurdities, like the notorious claim he signed off that without more money London would see “riots and looting”) . But he does often catch the pompous worry of a man addicted to citing powerful friends and colleagues who approve of him: the PM, Michael Gove, the “Chairman of WH Smith”, big banks, whoever….
So it’s all there: the Camila flakiness, the Chairman’s complacency, the dark unseen hinterland of tragic young lives, and the clash between idealism and safe administrative procedure. You reflect, watching and listening to Batmanghelidjh,, that giving – financially and emotionally – is a satisfying addiction, and can if imprudent bring you down. As for Yentob, the reflection is that thinking well of yourself and collecting plaudits from grand friends is probably another addictive behaviour. So what we had here was a kind of folie-a-deux. If the Chair had been some tough, clever, unimpressable terrier of a manager, we might still have the charity.
But is this good drama? Not really. The sense of going round in circles of irritable mutual misunderstanding – which that hearing of course did – means it feels unresolved, even sometimes dull. Despite the pair’s arias, you get little sense of the diverse realities of these unseen children. None of the outside written submissions , for instance, reflect the large number of clients (one of whom, a friend, was sitting next to me) who saw it close up. Especially those who were initially helped and grateful, owe KidsCo a lot and give it thanks, yet had firmly to disentangle themselves from the therapeutic emotionalism of the increasingly dominant foundress as they grew up. There’s a whole other play there. But this one may, in going off at half-cock, have stopped that happening for a few years at least.