“The Irish are the blacks of Europe”
In the ongoing search for the perfect recipe for a West End musical, The Commitments has done better than most since opening last October. Here, a hot-shot director (Jamie Lloyd) has been mixed with material that has already been a book and a film (written by Roddy Doyle, directed by Alan Parker) and tinkers with the jukebox format (using iconic US soul classics) to create an engaging piece of entertainment. The main surprise comes with how little story there actually is – the premise is simply that young gun Jimmy Rabbitte decides to put a band together and that is pretty much it.
So in place of narrative twists and turns, we get the slick movement of Soutra Gilmour’s ingeniously inventive set design; instead of depth of character, there’s a wide-ranging songbook which gives everyone a turn on the mike or a chance to rock out a solo and thus express themselves through music. It’s a curious interpretation which takes a little time to really gel, the opening 20 minutes or so struggles to make its mark as there’s little music and the surprising thinness of Doyle’s writing is at its most exposed – for all the time Jimmy spends in his house, his ma gets an appallingly small amount to say.
But then as the band starts to come together, the show begins to work as Lloyd brilliantly conceives a montage scene showing them all separately learning their parts to ‘You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On’ and finally cohering into something halfway decent. And from then on, it never looks back. Performance follows sterling performance, with various bickering matches punctuating the band’s progress as we build towards the inevitable mini-concert that forms the climax and whilst it may initially seem a little cynically engineered to get us on our feet, the joyous rapture of music such as this is irresistible.
And performed with such gusto as it is here, it is hard not to let a smile cross the face and just join in with the clapping and dancing around you. Killian Donnelly is sensational as the idiosyncratic lead singer Deco whose voice only just overcomes his challenging personality, Ben Fox’s guru-like Joey blesses the band with his soi-disant experience and undoubtable horn skills, Stephanie McKeon’s Natalie has a glorious vocal presence, the list really does go on. Denis Grindel as Jimmy deserves special mention though as the one struggling to hold it altogether.
There’s a time and a place for most things in this world and whilst some may sneer at the crowd-pleasing ambitions of such a show, to deny its swaggering charm and infectious enthusiasm seems to miss the point that theatre can sometimes just be good fun. And really, what other show is there that tells the truth about belly button fluff?