I doubt that when Committee’s creators conceived of their verbatim musical theatre project they intended to make something so sad. Not sad in the uncool way, but in the melancholy sense. It’s been created by Josie Rourke and Hadley Fraser, from the edited transcript of the 2015 hearing into the financial collapse of children’s charity Kids Company – as such, its full title is The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. But the musical’s relentless determination to stick to the facts makes for a frustrating affair.
While the dramatic implosion of a celeb-endorsed uber-charity, and the unravelling of its founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, offered of a rare flash of flamboyance in the otherwise bland corridors of ‘soft’ power, the committee hearing’s very premise (financial administration) keeps the good stuff out of reach. Just as Batmanghelidjh attempts to refocus every question thrown at her – whether to protect her own failings or out of genuine desire to provoke a debate about deprivation – each time the big issues threaten to get out of the bag, they are wrestled back in.
We’re welcomed to the Committee’s world by a clerk (Joanna Kirkland) who introduces its members by their contingency, party and political persuasion. This follows some exposition about what committees do and the limits of their power, just in case you didn’t already know. (And how depressing is the assumption, right or wrong, that the Donmar’s audience won’t understand the apparatus of government). This, we’re told, is a place where career-minded backbenchers can shine. Think of it as X-Factor for politicians, the prize not a Christmas No. 1, but a mention on Newsnight.
It becomes apparent, however, that the explanation-heavy intro isn’t just the consequence of the audience’s presumed lack of knowledge, but because Committee’s form means it can’t show us its characters in any depth. What chokes this piece is the sheer lack of material to carve a compelling story from. The original hearing lasted just a few hours, and even the most judicious cut-and-paste from the transcript can’t give a satisfying narrative structure to a rambling inquiry.
Only the biggest personalities in the room take any shape. Paul Flynn (Anthony O’Donnell), MP for Newport West, a veteran Labour man who has literally written the book on how be a pain in the arse from the backbenches, gets air-time via his determination to say whenever he smells bullshit. Conservative committee chairman Bernard Jenkin is played with perfectly affected flair by Alexander Hanson, but with the rest of the politicos there are scant pickings, despite as an ensemble being largely flawless.
Yentob and Batmanghelidjh offer far more. There’s as much creativity in the latter’s ‘verbal ectoplasm’ (™ Paul Flynn, MP) as there is in her outfit, while Omar Ebrahim injects some levity in proceedings with Alan Yentob’s essential Yentobness, all name-dropping pomposity. Sensational singing from Sandra Marvin makes Batmanghelidjh unforgettable, giving passionate voice to her commitment and slipperiness, which makes it even more frustrating that the depths of her character remain hidden. Things heat up when questions reveal – or try to – the perplexing relationship between Yentob and Batmanghelidjh. But this simmering suggestion of a faulty power balance between the ego-driven pair is similarly prevented from really being explored.
Committee is a super-sleek production. At just 80 minutes long, it’s the emotive score by Tom Deering – beautifully delivered by a piano and string quartet – and sung refrains that delivers the small doses of drama (leave any hopes of showtunes at the door, this is more operetta than jazz hands). Robert Jones’ set captures the pseudo-soothing, sage-saturated officious blandness of Portcullis House, its colour scheme at odds with the fundamentally combative setup. The sight of two chairs in front of a wall off sneering MPs will strike fear into the heart of anyone who’s ever been subject to a panel job interview. The ensemble movement and direction is subtle and effective at directing the audience’s attention without ever cluttering up proceedings.
We sign off with Batmanghelidjh’s powerful advocacy for abandoned children. It’s more dispiriting than heart-rendering that she is so committed and yet so flawed; that many of her inquisitors – and our elected representatives – are so wanting; and that the dichotomy between the two leaves us no nearer the truth because, well, it’s complicated. Too complex for one committee hearing. Certainly too involved for a short, verbatim musical. And that’s what makes Committee so sad. It’s an accurate slice of life in modern Britain. And even the singing can’t save us.
Committee is on until 12 August 2017 at the Donmar Warehouse. Click here for more details.