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The Children’s Inquiry – Southwark Playhouse | Review

The Children’s Inquiry at the Southwark Playhouse, Elephant, is a very new and very different musical. Firstly, it tackles a subject that most of us are aware of but have little or no interaction with – children in care in the UK. We remember them whenever a scandal, such as the death of Baby ‘P’ (which is covered in the show) occurs, but otherwise pretty much assume the state is doing its duty in looking after vulnerable children in its charge.

The Children's Inquiry at Southwark Playhouse. Photo credit: Alex Powell.
The Children’s Inquiry at Southwark Playhouse. Photo credit: Alex Powell.

But in reality, like most things in the state sector, the children’s care system is crumbling. Unfortunately, it has been crumbling for a very long time as the highly talented ten-strong cast. There are two separate casts alternating nights so, depending on when you go, you will see ten of the following – Hari Aggarwal, Dara Ajagbe, Josh Cain, Logan Clark, Antonia Tom-Dollar, Jude Farrant, Jersey Blu Georgia, Kenya Grace, Fayth Ifil, Vincio Korch, Fearn I’Anson, Lineo Nomonde, Chizaram Ochuba-Okafor, Anna De Oliveira, Kai Parillon, Eva Phillips, Mia Raggio, Archie Smith, Grace Thomas, and Noah Walton.

The show is entirely sung-through with music composed by Owen Crouch and Clementine Douglas, and lyrics by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead based on verbatim testimony from people in the system including Angelica, Amber, Frank & Jelicia whose stories through the system we follow.

Actually, it’s not completely sung as there are lots of excerpts of often self-congratulatory politicians from across the years telling the world how they will put children’s care services right. What is fascinating about the production is that it covers such a wide span of time, from Amelia Dyer, a baby farmer who was hanged for multiple murders of newborns and babies in 1896, right through to the war years, the baby boomer time, the cold war, austerity and ending on last week’s general election. The show covers a span of over one hundred and fifty years and shows just how badly governments of all colours have handled children in care.

Thow could be very negative and preachy but manages to keep things quite light – though social workers, on the whole, do not come off well in the narrative – and the triple threat children sing and dance (choreography by Alexzandra Sarmiento) their way through some pretty turbulent times.

Production company LUNG Theatre have put together a first-rate show that highlights an often-overlooked part of UK life and have brought it to the public in a way that entertains but, and perhaps more importantly, makes the audience sit up and acknowledges what is done in its name by the all-powerful but definitely not all-knowing state. The show is powerful and pulls no punches. And while it felt odd seeing children singing and dancing about infanticide and drug addiction, it somehow worked really well. It is quite long, coming in at around two and a half hours, but the children keep their energy levels high, and there is never a drop in the pace with all of them really throwing themselves into the multiple parts and sounding and looking as if they were enjoying every moment of the performance.

There’s a quote on the website that sums up The Children’s Inquiry both from a storytelling and performance point of view: “Children aren’t silent. Children are fearless”, and I can’t say fairer than that.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Director Matt Woodhead  
Writer Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks 
Set and costume designer Lulu Tam
Lighting and projection designer Will Monks
Composer and sound designer Owen Crouch 
Composer Clementine Douglas 
Arranger Allyson Devenish 
Production Manager Crin Claxton 
Choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento 
Assistant Choreographer Lauren Stroud 
Children’s Casting Directors and Children’s General Management Emily and LJ Keston 
Producer Camille Koosyial 
Graphic Design and videography Alex Powell 

 Jelica has been told by social workers she’s a success storyFrank is on his eighth foster home and at their school, no one knows Amber and Angelica are in care. Spanning over one hundred years of the system’s development starting in 1896, these teenagers will travel through time stopping at workhouses, meeting evacuees, child migrants and care leavers on their quest to discover the truth about the state of children’s care in this country. The foursome will ask difficult questions about the past in the hope they can come up with answers to the future. The Children’s Inquiry looks at the ties that bind a family, the value of childhood and how we can all find love in unexpected places.

LUNG presents
THE CHILDREN’S INQUIRY
Southwark Playhouse Elephant, 1 Dante Place, London, SE11 4RX
8th July – 3rd August 2024, Monday – Saturday 7.45pm, matinees Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm

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