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Committee… (A New Musical) review at the Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘ambitious verbatim musical’

A scene from Committee (A New Musical) at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The charity Kids Company was founded in the 1980s to help London’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. Its distinctive chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh was skilled at fundraising and awareness raising, and David Cameron was among its supporters. But in 2015, the charity closed following accusations of financial mismanagement going back years, not long after being awarded a government grant of £3 million.

Because of the large amounts of public money involved, an inquiry was launched and it is the edited transcripts of this inquiry that actor Hadley Fraser – making his writing debut – and Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke have used as the basis for composer Tom Deering’s new chamber musical entitled The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company, or Committee for short.

The committee members, including MPs Bernard Jenkin and Kate Hoey, sit in a semi circle facing both the audience and Sandra Marvin, as Batmanghelidjh. Omar Ebrahim, as Alan Yentob, chair of the charity’s trustees, sits beside her. Their faces are always visible on twin video screens. “This is not a show trial,“ the committee members sing, “we want to learn.”

While the bulk of the material comes from one main evidence session that took place in October 2015, there are also contributions from a number of the charity’s employees, some supportive, others less so.

There is talk of clients being handed out large sums of money while the charity wasn’t able to pay its own staff. Cash, we are told, was doled out in brown envelopes. The figure that they keep returning to, again and again, is the £150 that one child was given for a pair of shoes.

Batmanghelidjh often doesn’t help her case; she’s evasive and hazy both about the numbers and her own qualifications, but there’s also a distinctly Victorian tone to a lot of the questioning, underscored by something even nastier – Batmanghelidjh’s name is often mispronounced and MP Paul Flynn refers to her as a Technicolor blancmange.

The obvious point of comparison for this merging of verbatim theatre and musical theatre is Alecky Blythe’s London Road, but this is not as formally bold as that show. Deering has created more of a choral work than a piece of musical theatre, despite its billing. It’s strongly sung by the cast – particularly Marvin, who is marvellous throughout – but the format doesn’t really bring anything to the table. If anything it muddies the waters; the material is not uninteresting, far from it, but it’s fairly repetitive and dramatically flat. The use of music doesn’t change that.

Adam Penford’s production does raise timely questions about how we view charity in our society – who is deserving of it and to the tune of how much – and it’s a reminder, if one were needed, that our leaders have a dismayingly poor grasp of the psychological impact of inescapable poverty. The voices that are most glaringly absent, as the production at least acknowledges, are those of the clients, the children, already at risk, who have lost yet another safety net.

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Ambitious if flawed experiment in verbatim musical theatre