Wednesday 19 July 2017

Committee* at the Donmar, or, A Limiting Approach

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 14th July 2017.

Verbatim theatre continues to be in vogue. I think this was my fourth encounter following the NT's London Road and My Country, and the Almeida's Little Revolution. I've never been wholly convinced by it, and this latest attempt at the Donmar did not fundamentally change my mind.

First, as I try now to do, the positives. The ensemble of performers are excellent singing actors and actresses. Their commitment cannot be faulted and the impersonations are across the board convincing. The five MPs and the two committee officers also have to double as other witnesses and they do so very effectively. It is a pity that the text doesn't allow much space for a number of the MPs – I'd have particularly liked to see more of Rosemary Ashe's Kate Hoey.

The bigger difficulty is, I'm afraid, that they are limited by the work. Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke have constructed the book and lyrics almost entirely from the transcript of a single evidence gathering session of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee investigation into the collapse of the charity Kids Company. The session in question saw the charity's founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh (Sandra Marvin) and the Chairman of the Trustees, Alan Yentob (Omar Ebrahim), being grilled. What this show appears to demonstrate is the flaws in the Select Committee approach – though, of course, without reading the full transcript one can't be sure how far we are getting the authors take and how far the full story of what happened. This selection does suggest that the MPs were eager at times to score points, but equally that the two officers of the charity often failed to answer questions and that charitable governance was problematic. It further suggests that the hearing failed to get to the bottom of what had really happened at the charity and between it and local/central government. All this is of intellectual interest, but for me it ultimately didn't satisfy as drama because of the limits of the verbatim approach. Part of the problem is there is no scope for the show to explore points left unexplored by the transcript. But, more seriously, the piece can't delve sufficiently deeply into why any of these characters present themselves the way they do - it can only show us how they presented themselves at that hearing. This is exacerbated by the decision to make this a musical – there isn't a song in this show that really takes us inside what makes these people tick – because they are always presenting themselves to that particular audience. This is an undoubtedly clever re-staging of the hearing, but the verbatim approach means it gives up a great asset of fiction, to imagine what might have lain behind that hearing in the minds of the individual participants.

There is also a further problem. The selection of evidence poses serious questions about everybody involved – most damningly when Batmanghelidjh demands to know why the Committee are treating her organisation as a failing charity. Because, Bernard Jenkin MP (the fine Alexander Hanson) bluntly points out, the charity went bust. However, we are then subjected to a lecture from Batmanghelidjh about the fact that nobody is thinking in all of this about the vulnerable children. She is given in this number practically the last word in the piece. The trouble is that earlier evidence has suggested that the figures for the number of children the charity claimed to be helping were pretty questionable, and that it failed to provide details of cases to local authorities when it went bust. It felt to me like the show, by the placement of this final aria, was trying to force me to sympathise with Batmanghelidjh and by doing so almost seeking to pretend that certain points earlier had not in fact been made.

One final point, it's a mistake in my view to waste time at the beginning explaining about Select Committees. As with other such opening justifications in recent shows it suggests to me a lack of trust in the audience's intelligence. If a show is well written the context of a setting should emerge organically – you shouldn't have to go to the trouble of spelling it out.

This was my first encounter with composer Tom Deering. There are sharp moments of individual word setting (Kate Hoey's first line for example) and striking choral like sections but, finally, I felt the musical range was on the narrow side. However, I think this is partly because of the text which doesn't give sufficient opportunity for that marriage of penetrative text and music which can take us inside a character in a way spoken words might not. The five piece band under Torquil Munro's direction give an effective account of the score.

Robert Jones's design, a straightforward re-creation of a Select Committee hearing room, is potentially limiting but actually works well. In particular having Batmanghelidjh and Yentob sit much of the time with their backs to us, their faces visible via two television screens, effectively conveys the pressure of their situation. The semi-circle of seated MPs also lends added punch to their periodic collective interventions.

In sum, this is very well performed. There is certainly potential in the subject matter for an effective drama, but this attempt finally does not succeed sufficiently in that department because of the limitations of the verbatim approach. An interesting show, but not finally a truly great one.

*Full Title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall's Relationship with Kids Company - pity the poor Front of House staff member who has to announce this in the pre-show audience calls.

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