Fresh from the West End, The Commitments is surprisingly far from the bright lights and musical tropes synonymous with ‘theatreland’.
Dingy lighting, a muted colour palette and a crowded pub in Dublin draw us deep into the world of the show. This is Dublin, 1986 and Jimmy Rabbitte (Andrew Linnie) is a working-class Irishman, tasked with transforming a bunch of misfits into the ‘hardest working band in the world’, ‘the finest soul band Dublin has ever produced’: The Commitments.
The Commitments is not a “musical” in the conventional sense. Gone are the big choreographed chorus numbers and sequinned extravagance. Instead, the cast are tasked with the much harder challenge of singing as if they don’t know how to sing. Everyone remains distinctly in character, adding their own sass, Irish twang and even mouthfuls of chips to the collection of famous songs. We witness a large scale training montage: from first chaotic rehearsal to polished performance (admittedly with chaos and group tensions of its own!)
This production, despite its literary origins, scripted by Roddy Doyle, is primarily a concert: a belting performance of the biggest and catchiest soul songs. Deco, played by Brian Gilligan, stunned the crowd as the band’s lead singer—a pale, chubby Irishman with a voice to rival Aretha’s herself. Backed up by Amy Penston, Leah Penston and Christina Tedders as the glamorous ‘Commitmentettes’ and the lively onstage band embedded into the cast, each song was richly textured and a joy to behold.
Unfortunately, fitting in an astounding number of classic songs came at the price of plot. Not even offering the tenuous links to story-telling that, say, Mamma Mia, strings into its playlist, these soul classics were sometimes a little gratuitous. Few songs were played in their entirety and many were announced before being sung. But, ultimately, that didn’t detract from the splendour of the performances—every song put a smile on your face.
Whilst Kevin Kennedy, the resident ‘Coronation Street legend’, was a big draw in the press leading up to the show, his character was little more than a slapstick cameo. As Jimmy’s dad and the caricatured caretaker, he was barely involved in any dialogue, but whipped the audience into raucous laughter with his frequent one-line, blasphemous quips. Along with Sam Fordham in the role of Mickah, the manic rent-a-muscle, these characters added a sense of absurdity to the piece. They were endearing and hilarious, but didn’t exactly offer a depth of character development.
Beyond these cartoon portrayals, the show as a whole had a great sense of humour. With small touches, like the squeeze of a water bottle as “rain”, the show announced that it didn’t take itself too seriously. It was about having a barrel-load of fun!
The set design generously catered for distinct spaces and split scenes. Marrying the dedicated naturalism of a house in a box alongside the minimal use of a single desk to create an office, the stage version was able to recreate the multitude of locations so easily sewn together on film. A few marginally clunky scene changes are to be expected when the show is in situ for a less than a week, thus entirely forgiven.
Joey the Lips, played on press night by Jon Bonner as understudy, was disappointing. His accent uncertainly fluctuated between Ireland and America, somewhat detracting from the diehard-Dublin vibe that the cast were so committed to creating.
But beyond this minor detraction was the slightly uncomfortable sense of metatheatricality to close the first act: this was The Commitments’ first gig and we were the audience. Our stage housed their stage and we were encouraged to clap, cheer and interact. We were dragged, willing or not, into the realm of the show.
This feeling was amplified at the end of show as a whole, when the fourth wall was well and truly broken. We were addressed directly as “Leeds”, “the stalls”, “the balcony” and brought crashing into our own reality. The final four songs, performed entirely separately from the narrative, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, with the entire audience on their feet.
Whilst many other theatres around Leeds are currently decked out with sugary sweet pantomime glitter, The Commitments offers a different pre-Christmas night out. Despite the (all-too-brief) drama of internal band politics, this is a fun, undeniably feel-good show.
Catch The Commitments at Leeds Grand Theatre until 10th December 2016.