The Commitments







Soul may be “the rhythm of riding,” as Jimmy Rabbitte (Grindel) tells one of his new band’s recruits, but this musical moves to a different time still, racing through an extensive repertoire of tunes. Adapted by Roddy Doyle from his 1987 novel of the same title, there is surprisingly little time given to the art of seduction here, or to the pleasures of a shift in gear, in a new West End musical that would have us on our feet before we’ve even sat down.

Inside the gilded Palace Theatre, Soutra Gilmour’s wonderfully detailed set is dominated by a hanging warren of council flats, under which various scenes are wheeled on and off, including the Rabbitte’s claustrophobic home. Even though it’s Doyle who’s normally celebrated for capturing the colour of his Dublin subjects, it’s Gilmour’s design that best conveys a sense of character and history in this production, speaking both to the deprivation and hearty hope of its setting.

Despite both the novel’s and film’s (1991) richness, this jukebox version is both conceptually and contextually thin. There’s no character depth or development, despite efforts to insinuate a love story between Imelda (O’Connor) and Jimmy all too late in the second act. Neither is there a whole lot of dialogue, with preference given to pushing through the upbeat catalogue of songs. The overall effect of this focus and pacing is that there’s hardly any carving out of individual scenes or variation in tone, so that the line between musical and tribute act becomes all too unclear.

© http://www.thecommitmentslondon.comUnlike its sources then, the production feels culturally unanchored. Time and place are suggested by Gilmour’s set and costume design, but no detailed attention is given to the eras it straddles: the recession-shaped '80s and now, which initially seem like such obviously tantalising points of connection. Across the street in the Phoenix Theatre, Once manages its stage incarnation by maintaining a much more thoughtful balance between format and content, addressing the world of the film’s original production and the present, while also sculpting a much more nuanced mood. This version of The Commitments, on the other hand, could readily overwrite any setting. Indeed, when two guys dance at a gig on rollerblades, Barrystown could be anywhere between Rydell High and The Starlight Express. This looseness might be entertaining and enhance the production’s commercial elasticity, but it also deprives it of punch.

Performances are good, in particular by Killian Donnelly who manages to bring plenty of physical grit to the role of lead man Dec. Stephanie McKeon, as Natalie, has a couple of strong moments too, but sadly female roles are written with none of the edge of the originals. Although not the most convincing thing to pull off in the ornate Palace, the interval is framed by some the cast spilling into the auditorium as if arriving to watch the band perform in a typically dingy venue. “Hello Dublin!/Hello London!” are among the additional hooks bellowed at the audience, that can easily be replaced by other destinations, if needs be.

No sooner does the show try to construct a serious love affair between Jimmy and Imelda than it abruptly stops, with the former stepping out in front of the curtain to start a sing-along. “You’ve all been to the Panto,” he tells us. If we haven’t, we have now. It’s a too convenient tactic at the best of times, but here it’s used in place of an ending; an ending which really couldn't take place without a story.

Of course most people did rise to their feet for the finale: the unflagging energy of the performers deserved it. Hard still not to the lament the fact that underneath a wall of hits, the soul of a much more interesting musical was prevented from soaring.

Fintan Walsh

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

27 Sept 2013 - 26 Jan 2014

Produced by Palace Theatre, London
In the Palace Theatre, London

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Design: Soutra Gilmour

Lighting: Jon Clarke

Choreography: Ann Yee

Sound: Rory Madden

With: Denis Grindel, Killian Donnelly, Sarah O’Connor, Stephanie McKeon, Jessica Cervi, Ben Fox, Mark Dugdale, Brian Gilligan, Andrew Linnie, Joe Woolmer, Matthew Wycliffe, Padraig Dooney.