‘It’s disturbing to see yourself played on stage’: Bernard Jenkin MP reviews new musical based on Kids Company hearing
The chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee finds the Donmar’s new musical Committee a fair and compelling portrayal of the hearing on the collapse of Kids Company
Sandra Marvin (Camila Batmanghelidjh) and Omar Ebrahim (Alan Yentob) in Committee at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Manuel Harlan
In the last parliament, members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee were astonished to learn that the transcript of our oral evidence session with the chair and chief executive of The Kids Company charity was to be turned into a musical. Now Donmar Warehouse has staged Committee.
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It is disturbing to see yourself played on stage by someone (Alexander Hanson) who was clearly chosen because he looks like you, and has capably learned some of your mannerisms, but this did not distract us for long from this music drama, which sounds more like a Britten opera than a West End musical. And with the Insolvency Service still investigating the conduct of the charity’s trustees, against the background of the social issues we face in London, the evening had a serious edge to it.
The score by Tom Dearing, employing a string quartet and piano, creates a surprising unity to a work, based as it is on the disparate exchanges of our hearing. It gives the most lyrical singing to Camila Batmanghelidjh’s flowing soprano (Sandra Marvin) and to Yentob’s heroic tenor lines (Omah Ebrahim), when they are reminding us why the charity existed at all: to help the kids and young people.
The more jagged and jarring notes are given to us as we press our questions, reminding how intimidating, or even grotesque, a select committee can seem, but we also got stunning ensembles of complex close harmony, which were technically challenging, superbly performed and faultlessly in tune.
This show is at the very top end of quality in every way. The music gave a compelling account of the drama of the hearing, and every one of the cast was notably good, including even Rebecca Lock, who stood in to sing Cheryl in this highly complex staging at just 24 hours’ notice. Anthony O’Donnell’s Paul Flynn was rather more mellow than the real thing, and Rosemary Ashe’s Kate Hoey was a bit of a send-up, but these did not detract from the integrity of what was portrayed.
I so recall how we were determined to make this a fair investigation and not a show trial. I can think of one or two committee chairs who would have delighted in bullying their witnesses. Only Paul Flynn was gratuitously rude, particularly in his post-committee tweet, which reflected badly on us all when it was read out at the end of the show. But in other parts of the drama, the audience gasped with shock at some of the evasion of straightforward questions, about Camila’s lack of professional qualifications, or the inability to explain the “myth” of cash being handed out in brown envelopes.
Some reviews have damned the committee for seeming to be so clinical in our questioning and therefore deaf to the children who had been affected by the charity’s collapse. This is played up in the drama, when the committee all repeat their questions in chorus. It creates a false sense that the hearing set out to be unfair, when the opposite was the case. Of all sessions I have chaired, it was the one I fretted about more than any other. It could so easily have become a media circus. Camila seemed to carry the chaos of so many kids lives about with her, and she used this to get what she wanted from people. She tried the same with us, but we just pressed well informed questions and asked politely for full answers.
A committee hearing is just one aspect of an inquiry. Our report on the collapse of Kids Company – available on the parliament.uk website – speaks for itself, and was about what trustees and government should learn about running and supporting charities so they don’t end up letting down the very people they seek to serve.
Nevertheless, Committee is a valid, entertaining and challenging dramatisation of that part of our work.
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