Monday, 7 October 2013

Theatre review: The Commitments

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance.

The latest in a series known as "Jamie Lloyd must have a fucking enormous mortgage to pay off," the ubiquitous director tackles a big West End musical - or, as they're insisting, a play with songs - as Roddy Doyle brings his best-known book The Commitments to the stage. In 1986, Jimmy (Denis Grindel) works in the offices of a sweet manufacturer but believes his true calling lies in managing a band. Spotting what he thinks is a gap in the market for soul music that speaks to the working class, he advertises for a band to cover soul classics with a Dublin twist. Mentored by their trumpet player Joey (Ben Fox,) who claims to have played with all the greats, The Commitments go from disastrous beginnings to real crowd-pleasing promise, but their story is destined to end before it really begins.

With a set-list of well-known songs and a storyline that can incorporate them without looking too much like a jukebox musical, The Commitments is a natural fit for the stage, and judging by the response of tonight's audience should have a decent run ahead of it. The show's certainly been ambitious in its venue, The Palace being a particularly cavernous space.

And from the cheap seats (at least during previews they actually lived up to that name with some decent offers) it's a mixed deal about how well it fills that barn. It comes back to that point about it being a play with songs, and the "play" part of it never feels up to the task. Much of the young cast are West End newcomers, and their enthusiasm doesn't always translate into funny line readings. Grindel is cute, but his performance largely consists of constantly-moving arms and legs - it was a bit too big for me, even when I was sitting in a different postcode to him.

But this isn't what anybody's really there for of course. Jimmy is technically the central character but here the spotlight definitely belongs to Killian Donnelly as Deco, the lead singer whose arrogance both makes and breaks the band. His voice has a great range that can sound almost feminine at one end and rasping at the other, and if he's never quite as obnoxious as we have to find him, he definitely brings the charisma. The music was always what would make or break the show and Donnelly leads the performers in songs that raise the roof. The Commitments is aiming for a complete theatrical experience it doesn't really provide, but the music is the part that matters and it gets that spot on.

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle is booking until the 26th of January at the Palace Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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