Review of Committee... (a New Musical) at the Donmar Warehouse
The National's 2011 premiere of London Road, based on the real-life verbatim testimony of a community affected by the serial murders of women who had been working as prostitutes in Ipswich five years earlier, already blazed a new trail for the sorts of stories musicals could tell, and how they could be told. Now Committee -- or, to give it its full (slightly cumbersome) title, The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall's Relationship with Kids Company -- daringly, deftly and dazzlingly continues that playfulness with form and searchingly serious content, as it puts under its musical and dramatic lens the extraordinary story of the August 2015 collapse of the Kids Company, just over the month after a further £3m government grant had been approved to try to save it.
Lots of red flags were raised -- and questions asked -- about both its governance by a board of trustees led by BBC grandee Alan Yentob and its management under its flamboyant founder Camila Batmanghelidjh in the wake of the failure of a charity that claimed to be supporting 36,000 vulnerable inner-city children and young people with practical, emotional and financial support, much of it delivered in the form of hard cash in envelopes without much in the way of accountability.
The 80 minute show that Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke (the Donmar's artistic director) have filleted from the subsequent parliamentary committee investigation, mostly held on October 15, 2015, and set to a heightened musical score of jagged intensity by composer Tom Deering, cleverly avoids the easy tedium of committee procedure to instead hone in on the defensiveness of both Batmanghelidjh and Yentob, as they try to talk their way out of and over their own culpability in the charity's collapse, and their MP interrogators -- led by chair Bernard Jenkin MP -- to both get at the truth of what happened and learn some lessons from it.
Fraser, Rourke and Deering, with Adam Penford as director, do a remarkable job of honing and distilling the story to its essence, yet also maintaining an unerring tension in the dysfunction of a story whose sad outcome we already know.
It is above all served by a remarkable ensemble company, who grippingly bring each of these characters to utterly believable life. The intimidating and powerful Batjanghelidjh is embodied with fierce and ferocious command by the formidable Sandra Marvin; Omar Ebrahim's Yentob, on the other hand, wears an expression of perplexed, defensive befuddlement that their good intentions have come to this. The MPs, led by Alexander Hanson as Bernard Jenkin, are also strongly differentiated and keenly brought to life by Liz Robertson (as Cheryl Gillan), Robert Hands (David Jones), Anthony O'Donnell (Paul Flynn) and Rosemary Ashe (Kate Hooey).
The Donmar, who have done remarkable work in recent years in illuminating real-life events from the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in Steve Waters's Limehouse and testing the value of notions of privacy in the internet age with James Graham's Privacy, have once again gone behind-the-scenes with a startling, keenly felt version of a story that needs to be told -- and thanks to this memorable treatment, will help it to be remembered.