Committee: (A New Musical) review – Kids Company crisis lacks drama

Donmar Warehouse, London
Sandra Marvin is imperious as Camila Batmanghelidjh but this verbatim reconstruction needs more vim

Josie Rourke keeps pushing at the Donmar. All-female Shakespeares. Quick-response political dramas. Now an attempt to show – as Jerry Springer – the Opera and London Road have done – that the musical can be 21st-century-penetrating.

Committee (A New Musical), subtitle: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company, is based on a transcript of the select committee convened in October 2015 to examine the collapse of Kids Company, provided by successive governments with more than £42m. Script and lyrics are by Rourke and Hadley Fraser. Tom Deering has composed intermittent but insistent music.

On the one hand: Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company and Alan Yentob, chairman, presented as babes in the financial wood, with added self-righteousness. Batmanghelidjh, imperiously rendered by Sandra Marvin, appears in a recognisable tumult of scarlet patchwork and tartan. She does not so much answer questions as recontextualise them. Omar Ebrahim’s Yentob beats off blame by dropping names. It is hard not to snigger at the title “creative director of the BBC”, but he is accorded a soulful aria.

On the other hand: the MPs: all white, all reproving. Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin and Rosemary Ashe’s Kate Hoey are uncannily accurate. The panel struggle with Batmanghelidjh’s name, making it sound as if she has made it up. One bends down like a nursery-school teacher to explain that she’ll put a question in an easily understandable way. A third tweets about being submerged “in a tsunami of Technicolor blancmange”. The more they proclaim they are not there to persecute, the more accusing they sound. It is not always clear what Deering’s music adds, but their chorus of self-justification is made to ring out like a bullying drill.

The Tricycle’s tribunal plays proved that a patient unscrolling of evidence can be dynamic. But Adam Penford’s production is dramatically inert. The combatants are like tennis players hitting across nets on adjacent courts. In the absence of the children, it is hard to believe that these matters have serious consequences outside a committee room.

Watch the real Kids Company select committee hearing

Yet the questions that hover like surveillance helicopters are vital. Why are we so ready to let charisma go unchallenged – and so quick to bludgeon when it fails to deliver? Why do we assume that an academic qualification would equip someone for working with disturbed children? Why don’t we realise that good intentions must translate into proper management of money, and correct treatment of employees as well as clients? Why do we think we can find an exact formula to measure success in reclaiming lives? And, above all, why was it left to a charity to recuperate lost youth? We are looking – though you would scarcely know it from this polite bit of theatre – at yet another way in which this state has failed its citizens.

At the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 12 August


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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