Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre Review: Committee

As premises for a musical go, recreating a Parliamentary select committee hearing into charity governance using the verbatim transcripts as a book must be up there with singing trains on roller skates in the weirdness stakes.

It’s also a premise for which I am the perfect audience member: I love musical theatre and I am contractually obliged to be passionately interested in both charity governance and select committees by virtue of my job. I’ve written so many submissions for select committees and prepared so many briefings for staff who are going to appear as witnesses in oral evidence sessions that I feel like, for once, I actually know what I’m talking about in this review.

I suppose I should also put on the record at this stage that I actually think select committees are great. They’re where the best work, or at least most of the best work, that Parliament does is done and where the Government is most effectively held to account. They’re really, genuinely important in British Parliamentary democracy and, whilst of course there are exceptions, are populated by MPs who really care about the topics they discuss. Their Chairs can be egomaniacs and behave like overgrown schoolchildren but they are also some of the most forensic and persistent questioners of the Government that Parliament has. Yes, they enjoy being on the Today programme but most of them are far more interested in actually changing Government policy.

I’m very aware that this view colours my opinion of Committee, the third play in the Donmar Warehouse’s Power season and the verbatim select committee musical in question. Committee takes as its subject one of the more dramatic committee sessions of late, the oral evidence session where Kids Company bosses Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh gave evidence on the staggering amount of money their recently collapsed charity had been given by successive governments despite the equally staggering incompetence with which it was being run.

It’s difficult to be neutral on the Kids Company saga, and I’m not going to tell you my own view explicitly though I think you might be able to figure it out, but the one thing that it’s difficult to disagree with is the fact that so many kids were dependent on a charity not the state for some pretty fundamental help is extraordinary. From the point of view of those kids, the collapse of the charity was clearly a tragedy. This is the big issue that any theatrical work on Kids Company should engage with, where something new could be added to the debate. Committee, in choosing to focus specifically on this one evidence session, doesn’t engage with this. Or any of the other big issues that a broader look at the Kids Company story would have allowed it to play with. It’s difficult to know, really, what the point of it is. By constraining itself so rigidly to its form it robs itself of the opportunity to say anything profound or new and also to be particularly entertaining or dramatic. I mean, I love select committees but not even I would claim they’re top entertainment!

The idea of drawing out the theatricality of Parliament is also not new and has been done far, far better elsewhere already; it’s very difficult to imagine a piece of theatre about due process that is better, more entertaining or more insightful than This House for a start. The introduction of music, in a recitative style, is an interesting addition but it doesn’t really add that much. There’s nothing wrong with the music, the lush score is great (especially as it’s played only by a chamber group) and the lyrics, all drawn either from the session’s transcripts or associated website material, are cleverly done, but neither is it memorable or integral. I also had a technical niggle with the sound mixing, in that the instrumental sometimes completely drowned out the vocal, but that’s by the by.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with the writing of the spoken scenes either, at least in the sense that the bits of transcript they choose to use are the best bits. However, I do take considerable issue with the characterisation in the writing which seems to suggest, straight out of a contemporary Guardian opinion piece, that the collapse of Kids Company is everyone’s fault but the saintly Batmanghelidjh’s. Which is, to be blunt, wrong. In particular, I found the portrayal of the MPs and the committee itself incredibly, infuriatingly cynical. The way they are portrayed merely as self serving, shallow, ideologically driven and only really interested in conducting a show trial is grossly unfair. To suggest that Bernard Jenkin (the committee’s chair and not someone with whom I have a natural affinity, to put it mildly) only embarked on this particular inquiry to bag himself the coveted 8:10 slot on Today is just nonsense. It’s testament to the amount that this irritated me that I actually walked out of Committee with more respect - and even sympathy - for Jenkin. I’m not sure that this is what the creative team was intending. It certainly made me feel weird.

The redeeming feature of Committee is its cast, who are excellent to a person. The MP characters are perfectly observed (you wonder how many hours were spent watching videos of their ‘characters’ speaking and how boring this must have been) down to the minutest physical tic and vocal inflection, yet still avoid becoming flat imitations. Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin is, for someone who’s sat in a committee he’s chairing watching someone you’ve briefed as the witness, almost unnervingly accurate. Sandra Marvin and Omar Ebrahim are in great voice and equally well observed as Batmanghelidjh and Yentob respectively; the former gets all the meatiest solos and nails them as well as having the most extraordinarily expressive eyes, the latter is probably my pick of the voices and joyously skewers the mixture of earnestness, obliviousness and name dropping that characterised Yentob’s conduct throughout this sorry episode to a tee. Yentob is perhaps the most effective bit of writing in the entire piece actually and the only one through whom a serious issue - what is the link between Government, charity and ‘celebrity’ and what should it be? - is an anyway interestingly addressed.

Committee is such an odd piece, strangely irrelevant and without insight or dramatic depth, that you’d think I’d want to disparage the Donmar for staging it. I don’t. I actually think it was a brave commission and a laudable attempt to do something different. It’s exactly the sort of thing, in short, that a theatre like the Donmar should be doing. It’s just a shame that on this occasion the bravery hasn’t paid off. A disappointing end to an otherwise first rate season.

Committee is at the Donmar Warehouse until 12th August.

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