Batmanghelidjh and Yentob face the music in Kids Company musical Committee – review

Donmar Warehouse, London
Singing MPs grill charity founder Camila Batmanghelidjh and chair Alan Yentob in a show that’s as melodramatic as Tosca – though not as tuneful

Is there anything the musical can’t do? In theory, no. Although calling itself an opera, Jerry Springer (2003) used the techniques of musical theatre to explore the moral implications of trash TV. London Road (2011) was even more daring in adapting to music the conversational rhythms of a community suffering the consequences of serial killings. Now comes an 80-minute show, with a score by Tom Deering and book and lyrics by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke, based on the transcript of evidence given to a Commons committee about the closure in 2015 of Kids Company. It’s certainly unusual. What it proves to me, however, is that music is never neutral. By shaping our response to the material, it overlays it with editorial comment.

The story of Kids Company is a sad one. It was a charity created by Camila Batmanghelidjh in 1996 to help inner-city children let down by statutory bodies. Successive governments poured £46m into the charity, but in 2015 it closed amid accusations of mismanagement and after the withdrawal of an emergency £3m government grant. That led to the charity’s founder, as well as its chair Alan Yentob, being summoned to appear at the Commons. It is the edited transcript of those proceedings that gives this show its full, unwieldy title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship With Kids Company.

You could handle the issues raised by the collapse of Kids Company in lots of ways.

There is a good play to be written about the danger of charities becoming over-dependent on charismatic figures with a flair for fundraising and publicity. There is a theatrical debate to be had about why inadequate state provision creates the need for charities in the first place. I can also imagine a verbatim piece that presented the evidence given to the Commons about Kids Company with the same scrupulous sobriety that characterised the Tricycle theatre’s famous tribunal plays. But the moment you set a committee hearing to music you change the nature of the game.

Sandra Marvin (Camila Batmanghelidjh) and Omar Ebrahim (Alan Yentob) in Committee ... at the Donmar Warehouse
Relentlessly quizzed … Sandra Marvin (Camila Batmanghelidjh) and Omar Ebrahim (Alan Yentob). Photograph: Manuel Harlan

What we see is the Kids Company founder and chair being relentlessly quizzed by an all-party group led by Bernard Jenkin. “The objective of this session is not to conduct a show trial – we want to learn,” sings Jenkin. But the two witnesses are unsparingly interrogated. Batmanghelidjh is questioned about her qualifications, about her habit of dispensing money to her clients in brown envelopes, about the financial fragility of the charity, and about the numbers it allegedly helped. Yentob, for his part, is given a rough ride over the failure of the trustees to adequately monitor the charity’s monies. The two witnesses do their best, but it’s fair to say that their answers are often stumbling and hesitant.

But what does music add to the proceedings? Deering, musical supervisor on the Open Air theatre’s On the Town and Jesus Christ Superstar, has created a score for a pianist and four string players seated above the action. The total effect, however, is to make it look and sound as if the witnesses are being subjected to a brutal assault.

When the committee sing in unison they sound like a Red Army choir. When Kate Hoey questions the payments made to kids and sings, “They are very high”, the tone is fortissimo. But it is striking that when the Kids Company founder makes a plea for “catastrophically abandoned children” she is given the luxury of a gentler solo aria. The intention, I’m sure, is to draw attention to the plight of kids caught between a collapsed charity and insufficient social services. The music, however, is as melodramatic, if not as tuneful, as Puccini’s Tosca.

Committee ... at the Donmar Warehouse
Musical assault … the cast of Committee. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Adam Penford’s production, while skilfully executed, reinforces the point that we are watching the British equivalent of the Soviet politburo. When Paul Flynn reasonably asks why £150 was spent on a pair of shoes, his colleagues suddenly produce samples of extravagant footwear from under their desks. It wouldn’t have happened in reality, but it clinches the show’s anti-politics argument: that the committee is more interested in exercising its power than addressing the plight of deprived children.

All the performers do a good job. Sandra Marvin is excellent as the defensive Batmanghelidjh and Omar Ebrahim is touchily unapologetic as Yentob. Alexander Hanson as the crisply authoritative Jenkin and Rosemary Ashe as the inquisitorial Hoey stand out from the committee. But eventually it is a case of means and ends. The aim is clearly to make us ask how Britain is governed and whether our institutions genuinely serve the people. For all the good intentions, however, music distorts the issue by making it look as if Kids Company was a victim of parliamentary arrogance. A musical can do many things but not, I would suggest, capture the humdrum detail of a committee at work.

• At Donmar Warehouse, London, until 12 August. Box office: 020-3282 3808.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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