FringeReview UK 2017
Committee’s more creative than misleading accusations and the uniqueness here isn’t verbatim theatre but verbatim musical round a single transcript, composed and led by Tom Deering, with book and lyrics by Hadley Fraser and Donmar director Josie Rourke. Adam Penford directs at the Donmar with Robert Jones’ set resembling those green baize interiors. Jack Knowles suffuses all with soft official lighting. Above curves a gallery where Torquil Munro directs from his piano a string quartet opposite, with at key repeated phrases music not unlike Jonathan Dove’s, with Nick Lidster’s sound gently amplifying. Till August 12th.
Select Committees can be brutally theatrical: that’s certainly how this writer experienced one in 2010 as the then Louise Bagshawe MP laid into headmasterly Alan Davey, then CEO Arts Council on arts spending. Committee’s more creative than misleading accusations and the uniqueness here isn’t verbatim theatre but verbatim musical round a single transcript, composed and led by Tom Deering, with book and lyrics by Hadley Fraser and Donmar director Josie Rourke. There have been verbatim musicals though Committee’s the first to offer one key edited script with a few add-ones Putting the va-va-voom into verbatim offers perils: the crystalline interrogatives, the why of such hearings get skewed. Scoring the why though unearths some minerals.
Adam Penford directs a classically tight Donmar production with Robert Jones’ set resembling those green baize interiors, a crescent-desked panel facing a sunken couple of seats dead centre de haut en bas where Kids Company CEO Camila Batmanghelidjih and Chair of Trustees Alan Yentob face their interlocutors following the organisation’s collapse after the government pulled its last bung in 2015. Two screens monitor their faces turned from us with a background lit in filaments, though there’s plenty of swivelling away from the seven-strong committee itself, glaring down into the hot seats. Jack Knowles suffuses all with soft official lighting. Above curves a gallery where Torquil Munro directs from his piano a string quartet opposite, with at key repeated phrases music not unlike Jonathan Dove’s; at times Sondheim juggles with G&S, with Nick Lidster’s sound gently amplifying.. Catching the edited transcript’s rhythms and looping these back into feedback arias isn’t the least of Deering’s achievements.
Committee’s subtitle is a verbatim gem: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship With Kids Company. What this means is umbrage; Whitehall above all wishes to displace itself from scrutiny by apparently addressing it – and promptly burying it hilt-deep in luckless scapegoats who are certainly responsible to a degree.
Omar Ebrahim ensures Yentob’s testy evasiveness coils round mantras of namedropping. At one point he’s skewered with the snide remark that he’s a creative BBC head. Batmanghelidjih’s entitlement and imperious counter-questioning or re-phrasing – for instance the amounts given to individuals like £150 for shoes, or wads in brown envelopes – get batted away, half-admitted and wholly challenged.
From 1996-2015 successive governments bankrolled Kids Company around £46 million. Like Yentob and his trustees, they’re dazzled by Batmanghelidjih‘s force and fund-raising powers. The Select Committee knows it’s part of the culture: so it’ll not forgive.
There’s point to this. Batmanghelidjih’s arrogance stems too from recognizing the government abrogated its responsibilities, and Kids Company were given tacit blessing to attempt – hopelessly – to plug these single-handedly. Sandra Marvin both holds magnificent sway as a queen in exile and bridles at close-questioning that flummoxes her broad-stroke attitude. Beneath this her wounded wrongs surface at their best not in anger but sidestepping into the soul of an aria: what this should be about, the devastation to lives caused by children’s poverty, neglect; things government nominally addresses. If you repeat at the opening and close ‘The objective of this session is not to conduct a show trial – we want to learn’ it’s clear nothing has been or dare be learned.
Deering’s score works to a peak in these arias, and Ebrahim’s is as touching, more vulnerable and baffled. Deering’s more memorable invention comes though in pithier motor-rhythms and cross-dialogues, though at times this un-miked ensemble isn’t verbally distinct. If Batmanghelidjih’s this lyrical Alexander Hanson’s incisive chair Bernard Jenkin owns a muted underwash of sympathy at unexpected moments. Rosemary Ashe’s Kate Hoey leaps into memorable characterisation, half attuned to the real business in hand, half in love with her attunement.
Vocally Rebecca Lock – replacing an indisposed Liz Robertson in this performance – gets that unctuous patronising sneer Tory Cheryl Gillian commands in rephrasing a question so Batmanghelidjih might understand it. More, her soaring soprano pierces the ensemble texture just enough to ensure her words and timbre ring home. It’s not obtrusive but achingly fresh. Elsewhere Anthony O’Donnell as Paul Flynn ‘the thinking man’s Dennis Skinner’ weighs bon mots laced with avuncularity, always seeking a platform, being gently slapped down at least once. Robert Hands as David Jones treads a quiet-voiced carefulness like hand-wringing. Joana Kirkland and David Albury take on not just anonymous clerks but a range of other anonymous voices from the failed company, sometimes supportive often damning, warnings unheeded.
By its nature this work can’t describe a dramatic trajectory, though editing and scoring certainly suggests points of crisis. With a uniformly excellent cast, a score fitted insistently and snugly to characters, some might miss the starkness a verbatim sans music might bring. But the editing itself does highlight intensity and feeling. It might jar, but it brings this particular hearing to life in the way a bald recitation wouldn’t. The lack might lie in the truth itself as it failed to be expressed at the hearing. Questions underlying this charity’s collapse weren’t asked, nor the appalling slide of now four million children into poverty and other abuses. Meanwhile this edgy new development, faithful to one incident, marks a more than worthwhile variation on such larger works as London Road. It’s more illuminating than the history it sheds music on.