Writer: Roddy Doyle
Director: Caroline Jay Ranger
Reviewer: Karen Bussell
It’s always difficult bringing a well-loved film to the theatre, and BAFTA-winning Roddy Doyle’s 1991 cult classic The Commitments is no exception.
That Doyle himself adapted his 1987 novel for the stage bodes well, and for those uninitiated in the glory of the movie it may do well, but so much is lost in the conversion. So, looking at Phil McIntyre Entertainments Limited’s touring musical, fresh from the West End, without the lens of celluloid it is, actually, a fun night out.
Clearly the youthful and vibrant cast are thoroughly enjoying themselves, which is infectious. The jukebox hits just keep coming until, in a raucous and high-octane finale, the audience is on its feet and joining in the medley of soul favourites.
Soutra Gilmour’s towering bleak backdrop illustrates succinctly the social and economic decay of North Dublin with roll on and off mini-sets – pub, garage, club and flat – swift moments in time moving the tale along apace and scene setting. There is just not enough time to build many characters or properly engage with the band members but there is a fleeting glimpse of the desperation to escape at the heart of the piece.
Jimmy Rabbitte (a fresh-faced Andrew Linnie) is a veritable musical Del Boy who gathers a ragtag bunch of singers and players aiming to gift his beloved soul to the working people of Ireland through “the hardest-working band in the world”. Advocating that soul is the music of black America; the Irish are the blacks of Europe; Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin, he lays claim to bringing the genre home to the Northside working class people. Which means dodgy shows in dingy clubs and pubs, and rehearsals amongst discarded furniture in a draughty garage.
A nicely played audition routine sees a succession of wannabe stars strut their stuff in a kaleidoscope of 80s pop snapshots, while a laconic, vest-wearing, beer-clutching Da (Kevin Kennedy making the absolute most of a gift of a part) comments witheringly from his perch on the sofa.
A reluctant approach to the shambolic and obnoxious Deco (Brian Gilligan, whose bluesy voice was overheard when singing in a stairwell while rehearsing as Billy in the play, and earned him immediate promotion to frontman) secures a focus for the misfit band and guarantees a volatile future.
Enter international man of mystery, the ethereal, moped-riding soul guru Joey the Lips (a smarmy Alex McMorran) whose platitudes, advice and horn-blowing adds glue and gravitas to the mercurial musicians and the stage is set for in-fighting, great renditions of a classic playlist and an inevitable implosion as the nine-piece band rubs along or rubs each other up the wrong way.
Sam Fordham is laugh-a-minute skinhead security man on a mission, Mickah, with his drumming a revelation. The Commitmentettes, Leah and Amy Penston as everyone’s fantasy Imelda and sultry Natalie, and a fascinating Christina Tedders, whose River Deep, Mountain High was well worth waiting for, as bloshy Bernie are a delight as their beautifully observed transformation from jerky, self-conscious backing singers to sassy sirens is a joy to watch.
Director Caroline Jay Ranger aims for the feelgood factor and keeps the pace galloping along but Doyle’s moments of detail – Jimmy dunking his biscuit in Da’s tea, Mickah headbanging and pogoing, a comic poster at the anti-drug concert – are quietly there for the observant.
Leave preconceptions at the door and enjoy the ride.
Runs until 29 April 2017 | Image: Johan Persson