Playing at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre now is a startlingly dull piece of theatre, complete with music and singing. It’s titled The Public Administration And Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence On Whitehall’s Relationship With Kids Company but the ticket merely says Committee. It is as dire as pointless theatre can be, a vanity project which has no place on the West End or anywhere.
When London Road proved to be a hit, cynics wondered how long before a range of copycat productions would come along. Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, and co-author of the book and lyrics of Committee (I’m going with the name on the ticket – life’s too short for idiotic titles), kept them waiting for a while but not that long.
Committee is billed as a musical, but it feels more like a chamber opera, not just in terms of the sounds that combine to create the musical tapestry of the evening, but also in the whole look and feel of the piece. Based upon actual testimony about the collapse of Kids Company given before a Parliamentary Select Committee, the subject matter is drier than dust. There aren’t many musical/opera documentaries, but this is as close as one might get.
The characters fall into two categories: the elected parliamentarians who form the Select Committee and the senior personnel from the collapsed Kids Company, Alan Yentob and Camila Batmanghelidjh. The latter two provide some potential for rich characterisation because both of them, in real life, present as fascinating individuals. The politicians, however, are a mixed bag, complemented by some administrative staff who really could only ever be perky and assured (as they are here).
But this is not an extrapolation from real life affairs. It is an animation of the words spoken by real people in a particularly dry, forensic and oblique environment. Select Committees sift facts, suggest policy, comment on shortfalls – but they don’t pass judgment. There is not necessarily any moment of reckoning.
In order for this concept to work, dramatically and theatrically, the end result has to either be musically extraordinary or stylishly innovative or both. Committee is neither. As directed by Adam Penford, its highest points arrive either when the company sing together loudly or one person, perhaps more, stand up. (Select Committee hearings are, by their very nature, sedate affairs where every one sits, even when they might shout at each other). Call me old-fashioned, but I just can’t see the theatrical thrill in people standing, walking and singing a few lines and then sitting again. After a while, the movement is enervating.
Tom Deering, a gifted composer, has not delivered the musical goods here. The first sung notes made me wonder if there was an in-joke about Lord Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward. Later material seemed to riff on Sondheim although the overall effect of the score was pastiche Philip Glass. Sort of anyway.
There was a lot of assured musicianship about the score as well as a willingness to eschew any sense of serious melody in favour of laconic phrases that could waft around, like balloons pushed by zephyrs, ever higher and further away from any feasible connection point with onlookers. But despite the intellectual attraction of the odd, discordant music, and its overall sense, there was nothing about the music which could shake off the torpor induced by the words and lyrics.
At the end of the performance, the purpose of the piece was as mysterious and opaque as it had been at the start. Quite what Rourke and her co-author, Hadley Fraser, intended Committee to be for is unknown. There is no sense, truly, of the thoughts of the politicians, either about Kids Company, its collapse or its leaders. There is no sense of the frustrations of a Select Committee or the way that archaic rules and attitudes to decorum can defeat the inquisitor function, either deliberately or casually. There in no sense of the truth.
There are snatches of these things, but no follow through. There is some suggestion about the way sexism and racism plays a part, but nothing is properly explored. You don’t feel more enlightened about process, people or situation as a result of experiencing a performance of Committee. Perhaps that is its point?
The true saving grace of the whole experience is that there are some better-then-the-material-and-the-direction-warrants performances. It is sheer joy to see and hear Liz Robertson; she brings an assured, graceful elegance to the part of Cheryl Gillan MP and her singing, even of the most unattractive passage of music, is rewarding. In her voice, Deering’s notes are brushed with gold.
Equally, it is delightful to see Rosemary Ashe having fun with the part of the somewhat cantankerous Kate Honey MP. It’s a more measured performance from Ashe than she often gives (Mary Poppins, exhibit A), excellently restrained yet uniquely vigorous, and her splendidly idiosyncratic voice swallows Deering’s score whole and spits it out in interesting, characterful and quite pleasant ways, as if they had been marinated in Scotch.
Like an obsidian bejewelled Sphinx, Sandra Marvin’s proud and unyielding, endlessly affronted, Camila Batmanghelidjh is hypnotic and serene, a vivid portrait of bewildered contempt. It helps she gets the best costume, but truly it is Marvin’s spirit and voice which electrifies the character – so far as the material permits anyway. Marvin’s character has the most almost tuneful music and Marvin’s richly coloured tone infinitely improves it.
Elsewhere, there is less interesting work. Alexander Hanson brings his affable, urbane, utterly detached seen-it-all-before landed gentry type to Bernard Jenkin MP and sings in tune, although some of the score oddly requires him to unpack his falsetto register. Omar Ebrahim makes Alan Yentob one note – sanguine. He gets the worst hand from Deering – odd phrases of music which explode from him like hot popped corn.
The rest of the cast does what they can, but with parts that are undefined, music that is uninteresting and a purpose that is unknown, flounder with a sad inevitability. Even the greatest talents would be hard pressed to enliven their material. David Albury, however, makes the most of a small moment late in the piece, bringing a richly affecting intensity to the evidence of one man.
Richard Jones’s set is both realistic and drab. Costumes are efficient, except Marvin’s which is perfection. Jack Knowles does what he can with lighting, mostly very well. Naomi Said’s movement undermined the authenticity of the Committee exchanges – in real life, people don’t get up and walk around in these sessions; it isn’t The Good Wife or its delightful sequel. Rather than add to the experience, Said’s movement positively distracted from it. It didn’t comment on or illuminate the words – it simply highlighted the lack of dramatic sinew and muscle.
The four piece orchestra played with masterful diligence. If you close your eyes and listen to them, it is fascinating to hear what Deering has composed. But the fascination is academic, not theatrical.
As co-author, Rourke should go back to the drawing board in terms of lyric and book writing; that this has been performedat all is an indulgent treat. For her. As Artistic Director of the once mighty Donmar Warehouse Theatre, Rourke should face tough questions from the Board about the appropriateness of programming Committee.
That would be an inquisitory session worth being made public.