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  • Isabella Thompson

Review - The Children's Inquiry

Southwark Playhouse Elephant

Playing until: 3rd August 2024




Photo credit: Alex Powell

Review (AD-PR Gifted}

The Children’s Inquiry is a heartfelt new musical that investigates the UK government’s approach to childcare and the foster system over the past 150 years using the true-life stories of Tom and Tamara.

 

Incorporating a wide range of recently popularised techniques such as verbatim and lip-syncing, the show has a distinct modern style that speaks to theatre fans of today. It is an extremely ambitious show of epic proportions that attempts to cover a plethora of socio-political issues, the weight of which lies completely on the shoulders of the young cast. It delivers on passion, polish and showcases an unbelievably impressive group of talented young people. It has great potential and would benefit from some editing to make it truly spectacular.

 

Framed as a judicial inquiry, the company tells the history of state-enforced childcare since the 1890s, calling various figures in history (both real and imagined) as witnesses to the stand. This is interspersed with the personal stories of four fictional characters based on true stories: Frank, Jelicia, Angelica and Amber. The style echoes that of a contemporary pop opera: sung melodies that mimic speech to highlight the informative lyrics paired with arousing choruses. The soundtrack is pre-recorded and fully electronic, featuring occasional drum and bass. Each song tackles a new issue, person or event, the style of which is often informed by the subject matter, and are often linked back to the stories of the four main characters as they chime in with their personal accounts using these speech-like melodies.

 

Owen Crouch and Clementine Douglas’ music is fresh, fun and far from simple. The cast all have impressive vocal range, control and tone and one is often stunned by the ease with which they deliver challenging songs with wandering melodies. Hearing effortless riffs sung by a thirteen-year-old does blow your mind a bit. The electronic soundtrack works well for the up-tempo numbers; however, during ballads or songs with fewer singers, the sound texture can feel slightly bare and would benefit from the energy that live instruments would bring. When it comes to the lyrics, the text is informative and personal, but quite dense in places and it can be difficult to follow. Furthermore, some (but not all) verses sung by one of the four main characters frequently include filler words such as ‘like’, ’yeah’ and ‘um’. This is likely because of the verbatim nature of these moments, which is understandable; however, the over-embellishment of the lyrics with these words, especially when sung, can at times come across as an exaggerated (as opposed to authentic) attempt at communicating the youthfulness of the characters.

 

A big highlight of the show is the movement, and Alexzandra Sarmiento and Lauren Stroud’s choreography is sublime. As a sung-through piece, there are more musical numbers than I can count and each one contains perfectly-executed choreography that is evocative and exciting. It strikes the perfect balance of neatness and simplicity whilst remaining highly emotive and intricate. The cast did an amazing job delivering such a colossal amount of movement to a very high standard, and when you consider their ages, it is even more impressive.

 

The biggest area of improvement is the structure and pacing. Most of the solo songs are quite long and could be cut in half whilst still communicating their point, especially given that there are a few that are melodically very similar. It would be even more impactful if the momentum and pace were increased. There are moments where certain political events are given more attention than feels relevant to the narrative which results in the personal element being lost. In hindsight, this could be because there are so many that are covered, and the show would be sharpened if the songs focused on fewer themes, as some bite off more than they can chew for one number.

 

The themes that are discussed are extremely impactful and thought provoking, such as breaking the cycle of abuse and forgiving those who traumatised you. A particularly poignant message is that “mums who didn’t have a chance at childhood deserve a chance at motherhood”. It is always impactful in theatre when children discuss mature, adult issues. The visual and audible juxtaposition between the child onstage and the dark text emphasises the uncomfortable reality of such subjects. The tongue-in-cheek numbers are a personal favourite, combining the cheekiness of children with the dryness of politics.

 

The most important aspect of The Children’s Inquiry is that it is bringing awareness to an issue that we should all care deeply about: children in care. It is giving a voice to those who have otherwise been silenced, helping to educate and inform audiences to promote positive change. One cannot fault this mission. It is artistically impressive and showcases stars of the future. It would be negligent to ignore the fact that there is some room for improvement in its execution.

 

Key Creatives

Writer / Director: Matt Woodhead

Writer: Helen Monks

Composer: Clementine Douglas

Composer / sound designer: Owen Crouch

Musical director & alternate conductor: Philippa Hogg

Choreographer: Alexzandra Sarmiento

Lighting & Projection Designer: Will Monks

Set and costume designer: Lulu Tam

Producer: Camille Koosyial

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