The Commitments seems to have been around for a really long time. The original book of the same name by Roddy Doyle was published in 1987 and turned into an Oscar nominated movie in 1991. However, Roddy’s adaptation of his book into the musical, at the Palace Theatre, only opened in 2013. Following a re-vamp and some cast changes at the end of its first year I finally got to see it this week and wow, what a show.
Once the ‘wall of lights’ goes up at the start of the show to reveal a run-down Dublin street with three guys busking badly, and the ‘rain’ came down, I knew I was in for a treat. Then, as the two-storey house was pulled onto the stage, the production really began to shine. Inside the house was a lad called Jimmy Rabbitte (Denis Grindel) who’s friends, two of the buskers from the opening, ask him to help them in forming a band and finding the right sound. After dismissing pop culture, “produced by art school drop-outs with too much time on their hands” the boys settle on Soul because, as Jimmy says in this redacted version “Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. It’s honest. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.” And, if you’ll pardon the pun, Soul really is the soul of the show, but we shall return to the music later.
Looking at the ‘play’ side of the story, Denis Grindel’s Jimmy is a marvellous tour de force. On stage for virtually the entirety of the show, Jimmy is behind every aspect of the band he pulls together. Unusually for a musical, this particular ‘leading man’ doesn’t get to sing. That task is left to Brian Gilligan who combines an amazing voice with a superb acting skill to make Deco, the band’s lead singer, one of the most obnoxious and unlovable prima-donnas I’ve ever seen. Deco is really unpleasant with no redeemable characteristics until he opens his mouth and sings, at which point you could forgive him almost anything. Adding some age and gravitas to the band, Anthony Hunt gives a great performance as Joey, a horn player who combines an unnerving tendency to address everyone as brother or sister and offer a loud prayer before every undertaking with a view of the music world based on much experience and a wandering eye for the ladies. We follow these characters and many others from the start of their career as a band, through their struggle to get their sound together, whilst learning about each other, and seeing the truth of themselves and their band mates. It’s not all pretty, and the language can be pretty colourful but it is a wonderful ride.
All told there are over 25 cast members but in fact, there are even more. Scene changes don’t rely on ‘magic’ movement of buildings and props but on backstage staff – appropriately dressed – visible to the audience and having a great time. Similarly, in one of the scenes in a night club, the follow-spots are operated on stage by electricians dancing along to the music. For me this is the greatest part of the show. Every single person on the stage looks like they are having a thoroughly good time. It would be easy to go through the motions with a show as successful as ‘The Commitments’ but at no point does that seem to be the case and the energy coming from the stage spreads to an appreciative audience comprised of what looked like a wonderful mixture of tourists, Londoners and quite a few people that seemed to be regulars. The atmosphere was electric and really showed the power of theatre to distract from one’s everyday worries, even if only for a couple of hours.
Coming back to the music which – no disrespect to the actors, Choreographer, Director, Set and Lighting Designers et al – is the real star of the show. I was never sure if the cast were playing their instruments or not, but it really didn’t matter as they put such energy into every song. And what music there was. Tunes that are so familiar the audience were singing along – I particularly loved ‘What became of the Broken Hearted’ which suddenly stopped on stage leaving one embarrassed audience member singing by herself for a couple of seconds. But also gems that I hadn’t heard of such as the emotional ‘Mr Pitiful’, the music dominated the show from start to finish, without ever distracting from the excellent performances of the cast themselves. The Director obviously realised the attraction of the music itself and the last 15 minutes or so of the show are a glorious rendition of some of the truly best Soul classics that had us all up and dancing in the aisles.
Let’s sum it up then. This is a marvellous show that doesn’t rely on the audience having seen the film beforehand and for two hours will have you forgetting the world and longing to go back to the halcyon days before work, family, pensions etc crushed our goal to set up our own band and conquer the world.
Review by Terry Eastham
109-113 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 5AY
Evenings: Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 3.00pm
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 12+