REVIEW: Committee the musical, Donmar Warehouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Committee the musical at DonmarWarehouse

Committee
Donmar Warehouse
12th July 2017
5 Stars
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This is without a doubt one of the most exciting new musicals you’re going to see this year. Brilliant actor and singer, Hadley Fraser and equally wonderful Artistic Director of the Donmar, Josie Rourke have clubbed together, with the inspiring director, Adam Penford, to create something utterly new and fresh and beautiful. It’s a mash-up 90 minute digest of the day when – to give the show its full title – ‘The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee takes oral evidence on Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company’.

Kids Company, in case you missed the fuss, was the now wound-up charity that did ground-breaking work in reaching out to children who, for whatever reasons, did not get properly looked after, either by families or the state or by other charities. Founded and run by the charismatic, exotic and highly educated Camila Batmanghelidjh, it attracted the most difficult and challenging children, who came to it in often desperate circumstances, and just as frequently having been rejected by other agencies. Batmanghelidjh’s fearless belief that no child should ever be turned away, regardless of the extremity of the challenges they presented to her organization, underpinned everything that Kids Company was and did.

She was also tireless and gifted as a fundraiser, and drew in support from right across society. I have to declare an interest here: I first heard about her through her appearances on BBCTV’s Newsnight programme, and at more length in a programme article at the Royal Opera House. I sent them a cheque; although I did not expect to hear anything more about that donation, I did get back a long letter from Batmanghelidgh, detailing where and how and why the money had been spent. This kind of remarkable personal commitment drew admirers from an ever-growing circle, including some supporters at the top of government. That, ultimately, perhaps proved the charity’s undoing. Politics is, as we know, an intensely competitive forum: insisting upon more rigorous financial governance than they could find there, the watchdogs of the Westminster donors, this ‘Committee’ of the title, moved in to tear the charity to pieces, and swiftly succeeded in wrecking it. How many children they thereby also helped has, I believe, never been ascertained.

Committee at the DonmarWarehouse

The script of this show consists of everything that was actually spoken, or submitted in written evidence, during the deliberations of this line-up of the Great and Well Paid of Westminster. Robert Jones’ set and costumes, supervised by Poppy Hall, recreate – with near perfect detail – the Grimmond Room of Portcullis House where the Committee has its lair. Either side of a stylised 50’s frieze we see the former Liberal Party leader’s face in a drawing and his head in a bronze: three forms of aesthetic expression representing the same individual – that is a gentle reminder of what the whole production is about. Meanwhile, the sense of realism is powerful, carried into every detail of the production. This even extends to the casting of the committee panel, who resemble with often uncanny accuracy the real participants: and, needless to say, the cast have gone to extraordinary lengths to research their real-life, living counterparts. For the record, those people have also attended performances of the show – I mean, why would they not want to see themselves given all this attention? – and have declared themselves most pleased with the production.

Where things depart from strict realism, however, is in the opening address to the audience by the Clerk (Joanna Kirkland, in yet another strongly individual and memorable characterisation), and – above all else – it is in the musicalized text, usually repetitions of what has been spoken in dialogue, but arranged with breath-taking imagination and skill by Tom Deering. The composer here provides the best written new score we have heard in the West End in many, many a long year. With just a string quartet (Ruth Elder and Douglas Harrison, violins; Jenifer MacCallum, viola; Angelique Lihou, cello) and MD Torquil Munro on a beautifully shiny black grand piano, perched respectively above stage left and stage right in a kind of 21st century ‘musicians gallery’, and with also the voices of the cast at his disposal, Will Stuart’s orchestrations of it weave a musical landscape which utterly transfigures the inevitably more mundane, plodding reality of the sober conduct of the parliamentary hearing. Stuart’s minute attention to detail in every phrase, beat and line, creates subtlety of the highest order in the ‘inflection’ of what is either said against his underscoring, or sung with the music, sometimes also with spoken text written into the texture. It is an infinitely mutable palette he commands, alive to the finest distinctions in mood and atmosphere, character, intention and effect. Penford knows exactly how to balance stage action with this text and score, and the results are a total knock-out, and Movement Director Naomi Said enhances this with a vocabulary of highly schooled and practised politicians’ gestures. The creative team is completed with surprisingly spectacular lighting effects by Jack Knowles and carefully unobtrusive sound by Nick Lidster for Autograph.

Yes, I completely agree that it is a highly unusual thing. That, however, is in the very nature of innovation, is it not? We in London, let us not forget, are a little bit behind the times in terms of where musical theatre is going. The National’s recent ‘wonder.land’ and ‘The Pacifist’s Guide To The War On Cancer’, and Perfect Pitch’s delicate ‘The Go-Between’, and other works, however, are salient indicators that the sector is making advances and is thinking much more ambitiously about different ways to tell stories in musical theatre. This work falls into the category of the ambitiously original and has to be approached with eyes and ears unclouded by received opinion or preconceived notions about what ‘musical theatre’ is.

There is drama in abundance here in the ‘conflict’ between the panel, and the two invited personages, Batmanghelidjh herself, and Alan Yentob, who was Chairman of the Board of the charity for 20 years before it collapsed. In the hands of superlative performers, Sandra Marvin and Omar Ebrahim, these two do battle with the Establishment ranged against them. Marvin is resplendent in the trademark voluminous theatricality of the charity’s creator, and her command of the space around her is complex and electric. Ebrahim, on the other hand, is the voice of cultivated, well-heeled Bohemia, a BBC mandarin who has perhaps been surprised to realise – a little too late to do much about it – that he has possibly come to the end of his patience with the system he has striven to maintain. When seated, facing the committee as the audience does, Duncan McLean’s video ensures we still get to see them.

Committee the musical at the Donmar Warehouse

Against Kids Company are lined up the forces of pedantic legalism. Chair of the committee is the plausibly reptilian Bernard Jenkin MP (Cons.), whose unctuous self-satisfaction oozes like pus from the clearly wounded political ambition constantly hinted at by Alexander Hanson. Aiding and abetting him, Liz Robertson’s Cheryl Gillan MP (Cons.) is all elegant heels and expensive coiffure, a matriarch from the shires, who will also never attain high office, but who will out-manoeuvre all opponents who seek to get her to dance to their tune. Robert Hands’ David Jones MP (Cons.) plays second fiddle to the aforementioned party figures with craven obedience. Colluding with these lovely people are Rosemary Ashe’s ferocious harridan of Kate Hoey MP (Lab.) and Anthony O’Donnell’s loathsome professional toady of Paul Flynn MP (Lab.). How on earth the ‘real’ versions of these monsters could sit through a performance of the play and not quail with embarrassment at what they were seeing is testimony, I think, to the colossal conceit of politicians, to their steely self-regard and impenetrably thick skins. Stolid British values, of course. The cornerstone of our wonderful democracy. To alleviate the unpleasantness of the impression these characters make, the actors also get to portray other ‘anonymous’ contributors to their deliberations, as does the Committee Assistant, the ever useful and adaptive David Albury, whose career takes another bold stride forward in this convincing role.

In fairness, it has to be admitted that smashing up small beer operations like Kids Company was nothing much for these meddlers, not when compared to their more energetic wholesale ransacking of bigger targets, like the Economy and the Future of the Country (see Brexit). That may be a discussion for another day, perhaps; although things like those do get mentions in the script of this play. Make of that what you will. Quite possibly, fired with the success of this venture, we may well see more new, highly original musical theatre emanating from this house in Earlham Street.

There is nothing else like this in town. Or anywhere. I’ve seen it twice: first at the opening preview, and then at last night’s ‘Schools Performance’, when the theatre was packed with fascinated children from all over the country. At the Q&A afterwards with three of the cast and Sean Linnen, Resident Assistant Director, it was quite clear that the show communicates beautifully well to people who don’t necessarily know much about the subject matter, but who – like most people – do care about the issues. If you miss it, you’ll be sorry. And the same might well be said for Kids Company itself.

Photos: Manuel  Harlan

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