The Children’s Inquiry – Southwark Playhouse Elephant, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music: Owen Crouch and Clementine Douglas

Book and Lyrics: Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead

Director: Matt Woodhead

State social care in Britain is in crisis. It always has been. Every so often, an appalling case comes to the public’s attention, and our political leaders respond with tweaks and adjustments. It has always been this way, from the Victorian workhouses to today.

That’s the thesis of The Children’s Inquiry, a verbatim musical that focuses on four young people with first-hand experience of the modern social care system. Frank is in his eighth foster home. Jelicia has been separated from her older sister, although they see each other at school. Amber and Angelica’s parents have been deported back to Ghana. Excerpts from these real-life stories, presented and sung by actors from two rotating casts, are threaded through a history of how Britain has treated the children who can’t get the unconditional love they need at home.

These stories, which Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead have worked with the children themselves to fashion into sung lyrics, are the emotional heartbeat of the piece. They create a vivid impression of young people who are continually being pushed from pillar to post, struggling within a foster care system that struggles to cope.

Surrounding those tales is a structure suggesting that the children themselves are putting the whole social care system under review. Some critical cases – including that of Amelia Dyer, a 19th-century woman who adopted children for money before murdering them (with possibly over 400 deaths attributable to her) – gain particular attention because their outcomes caused a change in the law.

However, the facts are somewhat glossed over in several of these cases. History’s transition into performance numbers, with prerecorded dialogue mimed by the young cast, combined with live and recorded singing and the omnipresent beats, mean vital details are lost, which limits the effectiveness of the musical’s central thesis.

What does hit home, though, is the introduction of politicians. Every time a change in the law happens, a performer lip-syncs to an MP proclaiming how wonderful the new law is, how it will improve the lives of children, and how the atrocity that triggered it must never happen again. Each time, they are surrounded by other, applauding MPs; each time, the children affected look on, and nothing much has changed for them.

Owen Crouch and Clementine Douglas’s music is dominated by drum and bass-style rhythms, although there are diversions into other genres, most notably with some Lindy Hop-style swing during scenes set in and after World War II. If, at times, it feels a little relentless, there are moments afforded where one can catch a breath. This allows some of the young performers’ qualities to be appreciated, especially Fayth Ifil’s tremendous vocal performance as Jelicia.

As the historical aspects of the production rocket towards the present day – past the Baby P scandal, where one wishes the tabloid media had gone after the iniquities of the social care system as a whole the way they hounded the families of the social workers involved – there are some positive notes of promise. There are scenarios where, rather than social workers thinking only of the children and letting the troubled parents drift free, there is work to support the whole family at once. We also hear of the MacAlister Review, the most recent inquiry into the social care system, published in 2022. In the months since, its author has criticised the Department for Education for not funding the recommendations he says are needed to reform the system to best support those it needs to help.

And yet, The Children’s Inquiry ends on a note of positivity, even when tinged with a little more cynicism than one would hope. Every child who comes out of the care system and into adult life is a success story in their own way. And while this musical rightly helps us celebrate that, its message about what more needs to be done is not quite clear enough. We should listen to young people, of course, and this musical is a great reminder of that. But when we listen, what comes next?

Continues until 3 August 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Verbatim musical lacking clarity

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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