The Commitments

Roddy Doyle
Phil McIntyre Live Ltd
Grand Opera House, York

Listing details and ticket info...

The cast Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Ian McIntosh (Deco) Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Eve Kitchingman (Natalie), Ciara Mackey (Imelda) and Sarah Gardiner (Bernie) Credit: Ellie Kurttz

When the film version of The Commitments came out in 1991, it did not fare particularly well at the box office despite excellent reviews and a handful of BAFTAs (including Best Film and Best Director for the late, great Alan Parker). However, over the last thirty years, this boisterous comedy-musical has gained an enthusiastic cult following, spawning two best-selling soundtrack albums and a hugely popular stage show.

Both the film and the stage show are based on the debut novel of Roddy Doyle, who wrote The Commitments whilst working as a school teacher in the late eighties. With this book, he sought to “capture the rhythm of Dublin kids yapping and teasing and bullying”, and this focus on dispossessed Irish youth is retained by Doyle in his script for the musical.

The year is 1986, and Jimmy Rabbitte (James Killeen)—a young, working-class music fan—has one burning ambition: to create Ireland’s greatest soul band. After placing an advert in a music paper, Jimmy is inundated with deluded wannabes, but he eventually manages to assemble his group.

The Commitments charts the band’s progress from useless amateurs who can barely play their instruments to a dynamic and exciting musical outfit. However, tensions within the group—most of them relating to the band’s talented but obnoxious lead singer Deco (Ian McIntosh)—mean that it will soon fall apart.

There is much to admire in The Commitments. As with the film version, the music is often fantastic, offering audiences the chance to enjoy a slew of soul classics—“Chain of Fools”, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “River Deep, Mountain High”—performed with energy and commitment by a talented ensemble. At the very end of the show, the cast performed some of the film’s most beloved songs—“Mustang Sally”, “Treat Her Right”, “Try a Little Tenderness”—getting the audience on their feet and whipping them into a frenzy.

For the most part, the production is well performed. James Killeen is highly likeable as the Commitments’ ambitious manager, and Ian McIntosh is suitably unpleasant as the band’s conceited lead singer. Stuart Reid is very good as Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan, the seasoned trumpet player who claims to have worked with all the great American soul stars, and there is strong support from Ciara Mackey, Eve Kitchingman and Sarah Gardiner as the band’s three backing singers.

Given my huge affection for the novel and the film, I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this production more. While there are some amusing scenes (including a montage of terrible auditions) and some salty exchanges of dialogue, the show is rather thin in terms of character and plot. Despite a nicely realistic set from Tim Blazdell, the show doesn’t capture the sense of 1980s Dublin that is so effectively rendered in other versions of the story.

However, when viewed as a concert performance, the calibre of the music ensures that The Commitments is a huge amount of fun.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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