Saturday 3 May 2014

Theatre Review: The Commitments (Palace Theatre)

It’s been a weird, volatile moment for new West End musicals of late, with the early sinkings of The Full Monty, From Here To Eternity and Stephen Ward and the recently-announced closure of I Can’t Sing!. Elsewhere, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda are thriving, though, as have sub-par tribute ventures like the now-touring Let it Be. Meanwhile shows that, by rights, should have had a much longer life - yeah, you know the one I’m talking about - end up not making it across the river at all.

One new show that does appear to be doing solid business for itself since its debut last autumn is The Commitments. Published in 1987, Roddy Doyle’s rough-and-ready tale of a Dublin soul band’s formation, rehearsals, spats and success was the author’s debut novel, and was, of course, made into a much-loved film by Alan Parker in 1991. Directed by Jamie Lloyd, with a book by Doyle himself, the stage version comes across as a canny combination of jukebox show and (slightly) political working-class musical, and it adds up to a fun, good-hearted crowd-pleaser.

With a set design by Soutra Gilmour that whips the action rapidly between locations (concrete council estate, community centre, pub) as it captures 1986 Dublin with a visual nod or two to late-80s British cinema (My Beautiful Laundrette, in particular), Lloyd’s production is busy, brash and blaring from the off; it makes the material and the characters considerably broader and more cartoonish than the film did. There’s some strained comedy in the rather awkward earlier stretches and, somewhat surprisingly given the author’s involvement in the book, the narrative has really been stripped to its bare bones, with little in the way of real character development: indeed, the second half pretty much dispenses with any semblance of a story to become, essentially, a concert show designed to get the audience on its feet.

But while the language has been toned down a tad (there’s more “feckin’” than “fuckin’” here) there’s still plenty of rude wit on display and the show wins you over as it progresses. What carries it, primarily, is the great charge and energy of the performances. Denis Grindel brings charm to Billy Rabitte, the budding impresario who puts the band together, and Ben Fox is wily and amusing as Joey Fagan, the older trumpet player who claims a past of working with the American soul greats. Fagan is given to pontificating on the political and sexual subversiveness of soul music, all the while working his way through the band’s backing singers, who are nicely characterised by Stephanie McKeon, Sarah O’Connor and Jessica Cervi.

But while Lloyd’s cast all complement each other well, it’s Killian Donnelley who takes over as the star of the show as Deco, the band’s tricky lead singer. Blessed with a marvellously commanding, supple soul voice, and great, expressive physicality, Donnelley is terrific value as he rips through the likes of “Mustang Sally,” “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and “Try A Little Tenderness.” When he’s centre stage, the rambunctious charm of this unsubtle but likeable show is at its most genuine, and its most impossible to resist.

Booking until 15th January.

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