Like a rolling stone

OVGirl

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a Bob Dylan jukebox musical or a play with Bob Dylan songs? Well… no, no, and take your pick. The programme lists twenty Dylan songs, drawn from every corner of his career, but this isn’t a greatest hits show, and you won’t hear Blowin’ in the Wind. The songs don’t function the ways the numbers would in a conventional musical; instead, they serve more or less as a live soundtrack to Conor McPherson‘s grab-bag of stories about Duluth (of course, Dylan’s birthplace) during the depression.

On paper, it probably shouldn’t work. McPherson’s script throws together a disparate collection of People With Problems in a rooming-house that is basically the Minnesota equivalent of the Last Chance Saloon. Nick, the owner (Ciaran Hinds) is mortgaged up to his eyeballs and the bank is about to foreclose. His wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has dementia, and her lucid moments are few and far between. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) is an unemployed drunk, and their daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), a black foundling they adopted, is mysteriously pregnant. Throw in a sexy widow, a boxer, a malevolent, blackmailing Bible salesman, an on-the-lam apparently middle-class family with a really dark secret, a shoe salesman, and the widowed family doctor, and you’ve got basically the full deck of depression-era clichés crammed together under a single roof for two acts. It could easily be deadly.

That it isn’t is partly down to the performances and musical arrangements, and partly due to the clever way McPherson uses the songs to amplify or comment on the content of the surrounding scenes. The result is a show where the point is less the story itself and more the unlocking of the delicate poetry inside Dylan’s songs – poetry which is only sometimes (there are people who’d throttle me for saying this) apparent in his own performances. It’s hardly a spoiler, given the nature of McPherson’s plot, to say that by the climax of the second act, pretty much everyone’s chickens have come home to roost, and there isn’t much incident in the show that you won’t see coming ten minutes ahead – but what you won’t necessarily expect is the sheer beauty that McPherson, his fine cast, and orchestrator/arranger Simon Hale find in the characters, the songs, and the setting. There are four musicians – keys, violin/mandolin, guitar, and upright bass – onstage, and a couple of members of the cast take turns playing drums when needed, and it’s as if a play and a concert are sharing the same physical space. The music is almost all presented diegetically, with the actors not singing the lead in a given song providing backup vocals; the play and the songs are carefully woven around each other so that while each could stand alone, they’re immeasurably stronger together. At the close of the first act, when the remarkable Shirley Henderson grabs the microphone and tears into Like a Rolling Stone, it’s as if she’s giving voice not simply to every character on the stage, but to an entire era. McPherson’s play offers a collection of characters on a collision course with life, and the song amplifies their frustration in a way that dialogue simply couldn’t match. It’s a mesmerising performance – simultaneously chilling and intensely moving.

There are fine performances, too, from Arinzé Kene as the boxer, Debbie Kurup as an impecunious widow waiting for her ship to come in – her Went To See The Gypsy is another musical standout – and especially from Sheila Atim as the pregnant Marianne. Atim gives the character an extraordinary, quiet dignity; you can’t take your eyes off her, and her gorgeously understated performance of Tight Connection to My Heart may well be as felicitous a meeting of singer and song as you’ll hear in a theatre this year. Ciaran Hinds is very good indeed in a role that doesn’t stretch him. Rae Smith’s spare, suspended-in-space set, with moody projections of Minnesota landscapes on flown-in flats, is tremendously evocative, and McPherson’s detailed but unshowy direction somehow manages to make a piece that probably shouldn’t work at all make perfect sense.

If you walk into the theatre expecting a performance that works along the lines of a traditional musical, then, you’ll probably be disappointed. The best way to approach Girl from the North Country is probably as a kind of two-act theatrical tone poem. Taken alone, the stories McPherson tells about these characters are too thin to sustain two full acts. Paired with the Dylan songs – and with Hale’s hauntingly lovely musical arrangements – the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll pick all kinds of holes in the script afterwards, but as an experience this show is – surprisingly – moving, memorable, and genuinely beautiful, none of which are words you’d usually expect to apply to a jukebox musical.

Just keep your fingers crossed for a cast album. Once you’ve heard them once, these are performances you’ll want to keep.

 

 

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Welcome to Portcullis House

 

 

 

Yes, that’s the title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a musical, albeit a very unusual one. Drawn largely from the edited transcript of the October 15th 2015 oral evidence session at Portcullis House, with additional material drawn from other evidence sessions in the committee’s inquiry into Whitehall’s relationship with the failed charity Kids Company, this is probably as unusual a new musical as you’ll encounter this year. It might be the most unusual new musical you’ll encounter this decade. How unusual is it? In maybe thirty-five years of regular theatregoing, this is the first new musical I’ve ever seen whose programme includes what amounts to a bibliography:

dcb

The result, perhaps surprisingly, is an enthralling piece of theatre, though it would possibly – despite a careful introduction in which a parliamentary clerk explains the difference between these proceedings and a trial – make rather less sense if you weren’t British or hadn’t been following this particular story (or politics in general) in the news over the last several years. This is a story that cuts right to the heart of the political schisms in contemporary Britain, the people involved are flawed, colourful (very colourful), and fascinating, and the collapse of Kids Company ended up being about far more than the mismanagement of a charity. As the government’s austerity programme forced deep cuts to social services, charities and volunteers were left to pick up the slack; Kids Company, under the direction of its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, expanded very quickly, and was undeniably extremely effective in the way it was able to provide immediate assistance, via drop-in centres, to vulnerable/at-risk children. The charity’s chaotic management structure and record-keeping, hand-to-mouth financial management, and unorthodox distribution practices put Kids Company on a collision course with the government, particularly after Kids Company began to receive significant funding from government grants; Batmanghelidjh, as the charity’s public face and most visible figurehead, became an increasingly contentious public figure as negative stories related to the charity began to appear with some regularity in the less scrupulous tabloids. In August 2015, the charity abruptly folded; in the aftermath, there was a lot of talk about financial mismanagement, misuse or misappropriation of government grants and all the rest of it, but there was (depressingly) far less discussion of how or whether the essential services Kids Company provided – support for which had been hugely cut back and in some cases even withdrawn by local authorities as a result of the coalition government’s austerity-based funding cuts – might continue.

The October 15th transcript runs to 69 pages, and a lot of it boils down to a discussion of the charity’s processes – essential, probably, in the context of the way the charity collapsed, but it makes rather dry reading. The show runs around 80 minutes; writers Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke have, thank God, edited significantly, and brought in third-party testimony from other hearings, and they’ve essentially boiled the hearing down into a confrontation between two opposing philosophies. On the one hand, there’s the government, as represented by the panel of MPs who are (justifiably) determined to establish that public funds have not been used carelessly or indiscriminately. On the other, there’s the charity’s chief of trustees, Alan Yentob, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh, the founder and chief executive, and Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s primary concern is simply to do what she can to help suffering/vulnerable/at-risk children. This is not, though, precisely a simple contest between good and bad/practicality vs. idealism/efficiency vs. compassion, and that’s largely due to the complexities of the characters involved, and particularly to the way Mr. Yentob and Ms. Batmanghelidjh presented themselves during the hearing. From what we hear of their testimonies – and while what we hear during the performance is edited, the impression is backed up by reading the full transcript – neither has much grasp on the processes necessary to keep a charity the size of Kids Company afloat financially, even though we hear Ms. Batmanghelidjh was a tireless fundraiser. Mr. Yentob – and again, this impression is backed up by the full transcript – sometimes appears more concerned with maintaining the access to cabinet ministers conferred by his position as one of the charity’s figureheads than with the charity’s actual mission. Both come across as egocentric, both evade questions, and both are occasionally petulant in the face of the panel’s more persistent questions.

And this – finally – is where Tom Deering‘s music comes in. This is not exactly Hello, Dolly!; there are no big memorable take-home tunes. The show moves seamlessly from speech to singing and back again, and the score exists in a twilight zone between Adam Cork’s music for London Road and contemporary chamber opera. The music’s function here is largely to provide subtext; when the panel intone ‘We want to learn…” in the manner of a church choir singing a psalm, you sense a certain sanctimoniousness. Mr. Yentob, on the other hand, is made to sing with operatic pomposity; there’s a clear subtext of disdain for the proceedings running through his testimony (in the full transcript as well), and the carefully formal music and use of an operatic voice (the other roles are all cast with performers who work primarily in musical theatre, where the prevailing sound is more relaxed) suggest what he never explicitly says: that his inquisitors, and the hearing itself, are far below his pay grade. As for Ms. Batmanghelidjh, she’s given, in her closing statement to the hearing (which is not quite where her testimony ended in the actual transcript, but Fraser and Rourke are allowed some theatrical licence), the closest thing to a full-out aria, an impassioned indictment of society for letting vulnerable children fall through the cracks, and the media and government for paying more attention to procedural problems at Kids Company than to the plight of the children it served. Her music captures her deep commitment to her cause, but also – via underlying dissonance in the accompaniment, and via abrupt shifts between relatively lyrical melodic lines and something rather more jagged – her essential slipperiness. Deering’s score is a compelling musical achievement; a committee hearing is essentially static, and Deering’s music provides a great deal of the piece’s dramatic tension.

As for the production, it’s more or less flawless. Josie Rourke’s direction finds more variety and more movement in the essentially motionless situation than you’d imagine possible; clever use of moving desks in Robert Jones’s carefully-accurate committee-room set allows the actors playing the MPs and clerks to step “outside” their roles in the hearing to become individuals giving third-party testimony, some of which is very moving (for example, an ex-headteacher and former Kids Company employee testifying to the remarkable speed with which the Kids Company machine could move to provide protection to a child whose home situation placed him in significant danger). It’s a joy these days to see a musical where the music is all provided by proper instruments, in this case a grand piano (on a platform above the stage) and a string quartet. The pacing is spot-on, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve in a piece whose setup basically has all the actors sitting at desks for most of the show’s running time.

donmar committee set

The performances, too, are impossible to fault. Alexander Hanson sings superbly and captures Bernard Jenkin‘s slight smugness without caricaturing it. As chair of the session, Jenkin is perhaps most responsible for the panel’s inability/reluctance/failure to engage with the extent of the social issues Kids Company had to deal with, and with the question – tellingly, acknowledged in the transcript by Ms. Batmanghelidjh, but not by any of the MPs, Tory or Labour, on the panel – of why a charity, rather than government, became responsible for helping some of society’s most vulnerable children. Omar Ebrahim is a perfectly slippery Alan Yentob, Rosemary Ashe skirts just this side of caricature as the appalling Kate Hoey – but then, so does Ms. Hoey (one of the details we learn about Ms. Hoey from the introductions at the top of the show is that her constituency website hilariously refers to her office phone number as the “Hoey Hotline”). And Sandra Marvin’s Camila Batmanghelidjh is a minor miracle, from her turban right down to her pink Crocs: beautifully sung, of course, and she doesn’t sidestep Ms. Batmanghelidjh’s infuriating evasiveness and tendency towards almost-childlike self-justification, but Marvin presents a woman of great complexity – refreshing, since a good number of the news reports into the collapse of Kids Company simply offered Ms. Batmanghelidjh up as a kind of sacrificial buffoon.

It’s not exactly a fun evening (or afternoon, in my case) at the theatre, of course, but it’s also probably not quite like any other musical you’ve ever seen. It’s unusual for a new musical to dive into a ripped-from-the-headlines ongoing story, and doubly so for it to do so via official transcripts of recorded events. The question of government’s responsibility towards society’s most vulnerable has become even more resonant since the horror experienced by the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower in June; this show doesn’t necessarily provide any answers, although it’s a telling authorial choice that the final significant statement in the show, unlike in the transcript of the hearing, is given to Ms. Batmanghelidjh. It does, though, raise all kinds of questions about government and accountability. Given the show’s premise, the fact that it manages to take those questions and turn them into 80 minutes of thoroughly absorbing theatre is little short of astonishing.

hoey hotline