Yet again I have attended a touring production of what is, in essence, a compilation musical. This time, however, the basis of the show is a collection of energetic, driving “Soul” music; and the plot is not simply a witty excuse, à la Mamma Mia, to string the songs together with the semblance of a story, but a gritty, believable tale based on the novel of the same name by Roddy Doyle. (There is, of course, also the excellent film by Alan Parker to which to compare this show.)
The night I attended the excellent Ben Morris was playing Deco, the smugly irritating lead singer of The Commitments and potential star of the group that we see put together by Jimmy Rabbitte. Jimmy is a fanatic about music who is fed up with inferior bands in Ireland and also with his meager employment prospects in his home, Dublin Northside, so he decides to create and manage his own group, which he calls The Commitments.
The strong text of the script is by Roddy Doyle himself, adapting his own material of the novel to show us how Jimmy, played most appealingly by Andrew Linnie, goes about the creation of his group of Irish ‘Soul Singers’, how the band grows in strength and stature through its experiences, and the internal relationship problems and neuroses of the members that lead to its dissolution. The drama could work without many songs; while the energy and performing skills of the cast doing that many songs slightly second ranks the story. But the conviction that the band could and should have succeeded is strongly conveyed to the audience by the very fine performances of 20+ well-chosen classic soul numbers played to us throughout the show.
Alex McMorran must be singled out for praise as Joey the Lips, the senior member of the group who has come from a supposedly successful career in America to join; and also Amy Penston and Leah Penston as the sister Natalie and Imelda along with Christina Tedeers as Bernie as the women in the group. Mention should also be made of Kevin Kennedy as Jimmy dad. Nearly all the performers in this show have to be able to act, sing, dance and play musical instruments to a high level of professionalism—and there is not a dud among them.
My quibbles about the show mainly centre on wishing that more attention had been paid by director Caroline Jay Ranger to the text itself. The costume and set design by Soutra Gilmour are suitable atmospheric; and I liked the general presentation and the way the show moved between the dialogue and the musical numbers. I thought the swift scene changes were extremely well managed. However, I fear that I do think some of the dialogue needs to be spoken with more clarity and also at a slightly slower pace so that the story itself will have more impact and a better chance to register. That said, the audience was completely delighted with all the musical numbers the night I attended; experiencing the music was clearly their main concern; and the build-up to the climactic “concert” at the end creates a wonderful release to the evening. Indeed, in those last few numbers presented as a kind of post-show entertainment, the joint was jumpin’! It was as if we had watched this group of working class kids grow their talents to the point where a real and rather dazzling display was now possible.
In that final sequence Ben Morris was simply astonishing in his intensity as a singer and in his movement and he displayed all the charm and charisma that was required after giving a performance for most of the evening as a bit of a louse. There is much detail that I could praise in the musical elements of the show and I think the acting by this ensemble is basically fine even though I found the pacing a bit rushed. The show is full of songs you will know and love hearing live in this context; and there is just enough sense of the social and political backgrounds of the characters to create a sense of dramatic heft to the proceedings that is rare for this kind of compilation musical. Especially if you like the songs of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Etta James and Motown, this is definitely a musical for you.
- By Roddy Doyle
- Director: Caroline Jay Ranger
- Producer: Phil McIntyre Entertainments Limited
- Cast Includes: Brian Gilligan/Ben Morris, Andrew Linnie, Kevin Kennedy, Christian James, Amy Penston, Leah Penston, Christina Tedders
- New Theatre, Oxford
- Until 14 January and then touring until May 2017
- Review by Mel Cooper
- 12 January 2017