The Commitments

Roddy Doyle

Palace Theatre, London

From 27 September 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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London suddenly finds itself home to the Irish movie-musical. After the triumph of Once, one of the city’s largest theatres welcomes a stage version of Roddy Doyle’s Dublin-set homage to soul music, filmed by Alan Parker.

This energetic production, adapted by the author and directed by Jamie Lloyd, deserves to have a good run, despite the lack of big names. It will also have to overcome critics’ snooty hatred of jukebox musicals.

That might be less of an issue than it seems, since this musical has heart as well as soul and might just follow the likes of We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages, both of which are loved by the public having been reviled by so many of my colleagues.

The story can be summarised in a couple of lines. Like many another soul-loving youngster, Jimmy Rabbit decides to put together a band. However, he has an unhappy knack of attracting wimps and psychos.

Despite a remarkable lack of talent, the 10-strong group miraculously transform in minutes into The Commitments—The Saviours of Soul.

They love (or, in the case of every man on stage, worship Sarah O’Connor’s Imelda) and hate, make music and fight, leaving the audience uncertain at the end whether The Commitments will subsequently go on to be the next UB40 or be left using the equivalent Irish forms to claim benefits forever.

What is undeniable is that the band make sweet, if unoriginal, music. For 2½ hours, they sing and play their hearts out, building to a rousing finale that will have a happy audience bopping on its collective feet every night.

The cast may lack recognisable stars but contains an abundance of talent, especially on the musical front.

Killian Donnelly as lead singer Deco is definitely the real thing, while Stephanie McKeon playing Natalie, along with Imelda and Jessica Cervi’s Bernie, one of the trio of glamorous backing singers, almost matches his power when allowed to step up for solos.

All of the players do their bit but trumpeter Ben Fox is the pick. He is Joey “The Lips”, a randy old man who played with the Beatles and James Brown and now devotes his life to religion and young ones (in the Irish sense)

Holding the band and the show together is Denis Grindel who has had to interrupt his studies at drama school to play impresario Jimmy and might just fail to graduate, such is his winning way with an audience.

The fare that they purvey is a largely a Motown back catalogue, given a Dublin makeover. Everyone will have their favourites but "Knock on Wood", "Papa Was a Rolling Stone", which had the audience going wild, and encore song "Try a Little Tenderness" take some beating.

The combination of Roddy Doyle’s charming working class fairy tale, some great soul music and a cast who give their all can be intoxicating. The result may not be perfect but it is a gas.

This kind of feelgood factor is not all that common and gives The Commitments, receiving its world première in London, the chance of a long stay at a theatre that has been looking for the next big thing without any major success for a few years.