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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Public Administration And Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence On Whitehall's Relationship With Kids Company
Donmar Theatre Summer 2017

Once you get past its unwieldy title you may be surprised to discover a lovely and moving little chamber opera here, especially since its words are taken entirely from the transcripts of a parliamentary committee. 

The Kids Company was a social services charity aiding vulnerable inner-city youngsters. Over two decades it received almost fifty million pounds from the government and as much or more from other sources, and yet it went bankrupt and had to be closed down in 2015.

In October 2015 the charity's director, the colourful (literally – she wears brightly coloured African gowns and headdresses) Camila Batmanghelidjh, and the chairman of its board of trustees, the very Establishment Alan Yentob, appeared before this committee to explain what went wrong.

(All the characters are given their real-life names and played at least to some extent to reflect their real-life personalities.) 

In selecting 75 minutes' worth from a day-long transcript, author-lyricists Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke are remarkably even-handed. If you come in with preconceptions they will not be shaken, and if you have none, none will be forced on you. 

It does become clear that Batmanghelidjh is totally committed to helping the children that come her way, but also that she feels answerable to no one for her methods (which include simply handing out large sums of money to individual kids), especially since no one else is (in her eyes) as effective as she, and that she feels herself above such minor distractions as accurate bookkeeping. 

There is no question that Yentob and the board failed in their fiduciary duty to watch over the charity's finances, but also obvious that he passionately believed in the good work the charity was doing. 

With the protection of distance the MPs have the luxury of outrage and considerable justification for it, but they have no real answer to Batmanghelidjh's charge that she was doing what the government wasn't. 

In turning some of this into song, composer Tom Deering creates haunting choral anthems out of the committee members' recurring and overlapping questions, and several passionate arias, especially for the two witnesses. 

Fraser and Rourke turn speech into song lyrics largely by finding sentences made of parallel clauses that develop a rhythmic regularity that fits nicely into melody. 

In a strong cast Alexander Hanson as the committee chairman, Sandra Marvin as Batmanghelidjh and Omar Ebrahim as Yentob stand out for both singing power and complex characterisations. 

Hanson keeps the chairman forceful and eye-on-the-ball without ever letting him seem priggish or hypocritical, while Marvin captures all of Batmanghelidjh's forceful personality while retaining just the slightest hint that she might be a fraud. 

Ebrahim makes Yentob the most sympathetic of the three by letting the man begin to realise that what he did with all the highest intentions may be the thing that colours his reputation, negating all his other achievements. 

At a quick 75 minutes, the show doesn't stretch its material too thin or outstay its welcome, and might just be one of the most involving and haunting 75 minutes you'll spend in a theatre this year.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Committee - Donmar Theatre 2017