Despite its subject matter, the trials and tribulations of a group of youngsters endeavouring to put together a soul band, Roddy Doyle’s 1987 best-selling novel The Commitments is not an obvious choice for a musical adaptation. The main reason for this is that the book is extremely dialogue heavy; most of it in Dublin patois and heavily peppered with swearing. It is also gritty, rain-swept and inherently working class; hardly glitzy West End material, one might think. So how have director Jamie Lloyd and Doyle himself managed to turn it into one of the biggest hits of the last few years?
Partly through compromise, it appears. The first half, which is all about getting the band together, is still very much about the dialogue, but it is fired in short bursts as the scenes move swiftly one into the other with barely a pause for breath. The griminess is still very apparent, especially in Soutra Gilmour’s marvellous set; grey concrete and dimly flickering fluorescent signs provide the backdrop, while the interiors of poky little houses swing claustrophobically on and off as required. The rain is provided by a gleeful man with a hose. The swearing is also very much present and (in)correct, though generally restricted to a flurry of fecks and bollixes; hardly hard-core enough to shock a modern audience. The aura of grim desolation is relieved by the up-beat dialogue and peppy, hopeful characters. Despite the band’s propensity to shout about their working class roots, wisely no attempt has been made to turn the show into a political or economic statement. This is all about fun; a fact which becomes very apparent in the second half as the band start to make a name for themselves, the songs come thick and fast, and the possibility of a record contract dances tantalisingly in front of them. The inevitable acrimony between the very different personalities in the group is comic, rather than bleak, and the glamour ramps up until finally the show becomes a barn-storming musical extravaganza in true West End tradition.
This is when the young cast really come into their own. Denis Grindel is very appealing as Jimmy Rabbitte, music fanatic and harassed band manager, and Anthony Hunt displays impeccable comic timing as the unlikely lothario, Joey ‘The Lips’. Sam Fordham also does a great comedy turn as the psychotic Mickah, bouncer-come-drummer. The girls all give sterling performances, with Natalie Hope in particular rocking the vocals. The undoubted star is Brian Gilligan as lead singer Deco. Previously cast as drummer Billy Mooney, he was overheard singing backstage by Associate Director C Jay Ranger and promptly promoted. And what a revelation he is. A shambling, uncivilized grotesque, he causes havoc and engenders fury wherever he goes, but when he opens his mouth to sing the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and the incongruity of such a raw, pure voice issuing from such a shambolic vessel is forgotten. Even his version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which when performed by Deco is more like I Heard It Through A Mouthful of Chips, is a magical delight.
Which brings us to the music. Hit follows hit follows hit, each brilliantly performed and cleverly selected to make every member of the audience go “Oh, I love this one!” From In The Midnight Hour to Try A Little Tenderness via It’s A Thin Line Between Love And Hate the cast expertly bring the audience to their feet, stamping and clapping, infused with the energy and the joy emanating from the stage. And if the ending is a little cheesy and contrived, so what? Any show that leaves the audience smiling, humming and wanting more is a resounding success in my book, and The Commitments does just that.
Review by Genni Trickett
109-113 Shaftesbury Avenue
London, W1D 5AY
Evenings: Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm and Sunday 7.00pm
Matinees: Saturday 3.00pm and Sunday 2.30pm
Show Opened: 21st September 2013
Currently Booking Until: 19th April 2015
Saturday 25th October 2014