Review: Committee… (Donmar Warehouse)

Sandra Marvin plays Kids Company boss Camila Batmanghelidjh in Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke’s musical

As odd ideas for musicals go, this has to be one of the most peculiar. It is a dramatic shaping of the day in October 2015 that – to give the show its full title – The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. Set to music.

Wanting her theatre to engage as powerfully as possible with public events, the Donmar’s artistic director Josie Rourke has, with the actor Hadley Fraser, written the book and lyrics (based on the actual words spoken) and composer Tom Deering provides the score. Together they lay out a significant clash of opinion, when the aforesaid select committee of British MPs called before it Camila Batmanghelidjh, charismatic founder of a charity that aimed to support youngsters abandoned by the rest of society, and her emollient chairman of trustees Alan Yentob, once creative director of the BBC.

The issue at stake is the fact that having cajoled some £42 million in public funds out of successive governments, and £3 million in emergency funding, Kids Company has collapsed in a welter of accusations of money badly managed and misspent. To Bernard Jenkins, Conservative chairman of the committee (played with a kind of charming ferocity by Alexander Hanson) this is a definition of failure. To Batmanghelidjh, the salvation of desperate, vulnerable children is the only true measure of success.

The views are, essentially, irreconcilable – and the questions raised have gained additional and gripping resonance in the light of the Grenfell Tower fire, when the willingness of local authorities to cut loose whole sections of a community has been hauled into sharp and terrifying focus.

So hats off to Rourke and all her team for relevance. And for slickness too. The production is beautifully mounted – on a simple set by Robert Jones that reproduces the smooth beech finishes and the pale green carpets of the parliamentary committee room. Over a carefully structured 80-minutes, director Adam Penford and movement director Naomi Said carefully manoeuvre around the problems inherent in staging a committee – a horseshoe of people in suits face two people with their backs to us – by introducing subtle moments of choreography (the panel pull out the £150 shoes that so offend them) and by showing the expressions of Batmanghelidjh and Yentob on screens above their questioners’ heads.

The ensemble is excellent, sharply painting their different personalities. As the brightly-clothed Batmanghelidjh, a slow moving mountain of colour and pattern, Sandra Marvin combines a glorious singing voice with a carefully calibrated impersonation of one of the most distinctive figures in public life. She catches precisely the disapproving moue, the twitch of the mouth when she is under attack, the self-satisfied belief in her own value – but also the passion of her belief. As Yentob, Omar Ebrahim is equally fine voiced, but perhaps his background in opera makes him hard to read; the character, though prompting ready laughter in the audience, remains opaque.

This hints at my problem with the show as a whole. Deering’s score, under Torquil Munro’s musical direction, is finely played on string quartet and piano and quivers with discordant doubt, underlying key phrases about abandoned children and the need to learn from experience with clever little shivers of notes.

But I wasn’t absolutely sure why it was there. The passages of spoken dialogue were, to me, just as effective and intriguing as those set to music. It seems like a sophisticated addition rather than an essential part of the drama. I longed for something bolder, more dramatic, less restrained.

In the end, for all its topicality, Committee reveals the limitations of verbatim theatre as well as its strengths. It is smart but essentially undramatic. Batmanghelidjh’s final challenge – that no-one is willing to take on the catastrophe that the plight of abandoned children represents because it can never make them look successful – deserves a bolder more courageous examination than this musical provides.

Committee… runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 12 August.