The Commitments, Palace Theatre, London West End
Review by Natalie York
It seems hard nowadays, walking through the West End, to find a big budget musical not based on an early 90s movie. There is something slightly depressing about the idea that we have to continue reaching into the realms of recent nostalgia to keep the houses packed but since the rise and rise of jukebox musicals proved that we obviously don’t want new tunes why should producers assume we want new stories? Having said all that if you’ve got to put a 90s movie on the stage then doesn’t Roddy Doyle’s cracking Dublin comedy ‘The Commitments” sound fun? And if you can’t have new tunes then you could definitely do a lot worse than raiding the back catalogue of American Soul.
So here we have ‘The Commitments” which follows the ups and downs of a ramshackle band of singers and musicians. We’ve got the firebrand manager, the talented but unlikeable lead singer, the three interchangeable female backing vocalists and the grumpily religious trumpet player who used to play with The Beatles. The real star of the show however is the music, from Mustang Sally to Heard it Through the Grapevine each barnstorming number shakes the foundations of the Palace Theatre with real energy and excitement. The cast all play and sing live with phenomenal musicality and effortless charm and Killian Donnelly in particular as lead singer Deco tears through every number with a raw muscularity that does, in the end, get literally everyone dancing (you have been warned).
It really does feel like being at a concert and maybe it would have been better off if it had been as unfortunately the scenes between the music, where the actual plot and characters are worked out, do feel a bit flat and unfocused in comparison. Oddly enough this might actually not be such a problem if the songs weren’t quite so good but once the final notes of Set Me Free die down it feels a bit of a shame to return to the band bickering over whom each of the backing singers have and haven’t slept with. I love the original film but here it does feel like the characters aren’t given enough space to really become compelling on their own as subplots rise up and seem to disappear without any conflict or resolution generating a whole lot of energy but not a great deal of focus. This isn’t to fault the actors who are a real ensemble, working together and feeding off each other in a way that feels spontaneous and un-choreographed. I loved the group’s lengthy dissection of the nature of soul music: the music of the people, the music of sex, the music of revolution and most importantly: not jazz! The sense that a style of music, if it connects more to the heart then the brain, can save a city seemed almost plausible when endorsed by the Denis Grindel as Jimmy Rabbitte the band’s almost painfully earnest manager. If a few of the subplots had been wound up tighter or cut altogether I could even have gotten behind the band as much as the music they loved so much.
Set design by Soutra Gilmore keeps up easily with the frenetic and fast paced plot as we go from community hall, to shed, to pub, to roller disco all in the flash of an eye. At one point we even see a full scale Dublin block of flats with rows of concrete balconies lowering over the rehearsing band. Costumes are simple and effective, I got a good laugh out of some of the more lurid early 90s gear, but when the cast get into their suits and little black dresses to perform you couldn’t deny that they looked absolutely great, even if they were meant to be performing in a community hall.
Overall I would say that “The Commitments” is a really fun night out. The songs are fantastic, performed with passion and skill by a young, talented cast. The plot doesn’t stand up to the closest scrutiny but if you love the movie, or you love the music than I would definitely say go along, treat it as a concert with bits of text rather than a play with bits of music and you will have a great night out.
109 Shaftesbury Avenue,
London W1D 8AY.
Performance times: Tuesday – Sunday at 7.30pm, Saturday & Sunday at 3.00pm
Tickets: £10 – £67.50
Box Office: 0844 412 4656