MusicalNorth WestReview

The Commitments – Palace Theatre, Manchester

Writer: Roddy Doyle

Director: Caroline Jay Ranger

Reviewer: Jim Gillespie  

Roddy Doyle has completed a hat trick with The Commitments. The original best-selling novella became a blockbuster film success and later transitioned into a West End theatre sensation. It reaches Manchester’s Palace Theatre half-way through a national tour with sell-out audiences along the way. He must have got something right. Maybe everything right.

The story underpinning all these formats is a familiar rock-and-roll trajectory of fame and failure. Unusually the setting is impoverished 1980’s Dublin, and the music is 1960’s R&B.  But the story and film also had traction because of the liveliness of the characters Doyle created, and the realism of the relationships between them. This empathy with his own creations illuminates all the sagas of the Rabbitte clan and the other stories Doyle has brought to birth.

In The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte moulds a stirring soul band from the generally unpromising material available on his North Dublin estate. Add in a middle-aged lecherous bible-bashing trumpeter with apparent musical credentials, some singing factory girls who can Ike-out the Ikettes, and Jimmy has a band of gold. Until the strains begin to show in the colleagues’ “artistic differences” and the romantic entanglements between the girl vocalists and the ageing lothario horn player.

The storyline is simplistic. The nuances of the relationships are sometimes sidelined in the theatrical version, which feels the need to make every scene impactful. Which means that the show leans heavily on the musical journey the band makes from hesitant hicks to rousing barnstormers. Raiding the back catalogues of the greatest soul artists of the 60’s and 70’s to provide the soundtrack of their development gives the show a pedigree which few other juke-box-musicals could emulate. Over 20 classic soul tracks map the band’s progress, and provide a musical emotional lodestone for the entire show.

The show does not miss a beat. Set changes are slick, and at no point do we lose a point of interest, or have to choose between several. Even when the curtain drops to allow for a re-jig of the scenery, we have the entertaining sight of Brian Gilligan as Deco, stripped to his Superman logo underpants, preparing for his first gig as leader of the band. When the pace slows at all, it is to allow a moment of poignancy before another rip-snorting number.

With so much entertainment to accommodate, the characters are reduced to stereotypes, but the entire cast carry this through with conviction. Brian Gilligan is loathsomely egotistical as front man Deco, Sam Fordham is a scarily manic Mickah, Alex McMorran is a beautifully bawdy bugle player, and John Currivan is a beast as percussionist Billy. It almost goes without saying that the ensemble are highly talented musically, but their real talent lies in acting as if they were strangers to one another and the music until the play develops its trajectory. Andrew Linnie, as Jimmy, holds the band, the show, and the drama together, and does a fine job in all offices. Kevin Kennedy is one of the few core cast members not to have an Irish pedigree. It is to his credit as an actor that it was scarcely noticeable. Elsewhere, the “craic” and verbal energy felt entirely authentic.

The original story was written in the 1980’s, and this touring production keeps faith with the era. Ra-ra skirts abound, and a sense of economic despondency permeates the show. Less in the musical numbers, which have verve and dynamism, but in the vignettes of Jimmy’s home life with his father and family. Hardly social realism, but a nod to the “political” derivations of blues and gospel music, and an anchor to the origins of this soulful take on the transatlantic experience viewed through a very Dublin prism.

Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Johan Persson

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