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The Commitments, Palace Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Commitments, Palace Theatre

The Commitments, Palace Theatre

Roddy Doyle's hit novel is turned into a West End musical blast, up to its ears in classic soul songs

The lead singer with attitude, Killian Donnelly's Deco (centre), takes to the floor© Johan Persson

The setting is Dublin. We're talking modern-day and down-at-heel in this major new musical which has a deliberately scruffy look – with a launderette glowing in the dark and a concrete, four-storey housing block hulking upstage. The adaptation is by Roddy Doyle himself, based on his 1987 comic novel.

As many will also remember from the 1991 big-screen version of The Commitments, Doyle’s young protagonists are scraping by in Ireland, with no scintillating job prospects. But then they get together, form a band, work hard at it and wow a guy who has a recording studio. Though looking set to go far in the music industry, they may yet part company – with romantic shyness and love triangles in the mix.

It's like watching a talent show, 'Tramp's Got Talent', and it makes you want to cheer

Read that last paragraph again, bearing in mind the recent London premiere of the Dublin movie-turned-musical Once, and you realise how similar their plot outlines are. These two shows are also, in different ways, arguably part of a wider, pioneering drive to produce innovative music-theatre formulas. We’ve seen fascinating experimental work in that crusade, including the NT's verbatim docu-musical London Road, and Rufus Norris’ multimedia Feast tracing centuries of Yoruba culture at the Young Vic. Once, meanwhile, embraces indie folk music.

By comparison, The Commitments’ song list is not groundbreaking. The concept is indebted to The Blues Brothers, with a retro compilation of soul hits: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”, “In the Midnight Hour” et al (pictured below, Donnelly's Deco with backing vocalists competing for the limelight)

It’s the structuring, rather than the score, that seems radical in this Shaftesbury Avenue production, directed by Jamie Lloyd (fresh from his residency at the Trafalgar Studios). The cast often flick between very brief snippets of dialogue and song. Moreover, there’s striking multilayering, aural and visual. So as Jimmy (played by Denis Grindel) develops his idea of creating and managing a soul band, he’s up in his bedroom talking with his mates. At the same time, they are playing crackly LPs; his dad is downstairs banging on the ceiling; other scenes are rolling into view on industrial trolleys; and Jimmy’s soon-to-be lead singer, Killian Donnelly’s Deco, is launching into cover versions, accompanied by live trumpet and sax. This feels like the theatrical equivalent of busy 21st-century life, like media surfing and multitasking, albeit the characters remain in the Eighties, sporting some splendidly naff jumpers.

The Commitments Band: Denis Grindel (far left), with Jessica Cervi, Sarah O’Connor and Steph McKeon as the backing vocalists, and Killian Donnelly (centre)Coordinating all the layering is an epic task which Lloyd pulls off with assured fluidity. However, on press night, the cast were relentlessly high energy and endlessly shouting, like sports commentators. Over time, Doyle’s compacted storyline looks increasingly skimpy, and the female characters are notably underdeveloped, unless you count gags about cleavages. Grindel’s mannerisms are limited too, affecting swagger in his drainpipe jeans, with a toothy grin.

That said, the script has urban grit and impish humour, strewn with effing, and Donnelly is absolutely storming. Not only does he have an electrifying, belting voice. He is also pricelessly funny, playing Deco like a shorn-headed nutter on the skids, dancing like a drunk. Munching on chips, he still manages to blow you away. It’s like watching a revelatory talent show, Tramp’s Got Talent, and it makes you want to cheer.

  • The Commitments at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, booking until 26 January

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This production is arguably part of a wider, pioneering drive to produce innovative music-theatre formulas


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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