Q&A: The Commitments

Published October 7, 2013

To call the West End’s latest show The Commitments much-anticipated would be a huge understatement. It may be more than 25 years since Roddy Doyle’s novel was published and two decades since the hugely popular cult film adaptation was released, but when director of the moment Jamie Lloyd revealed back in April that he was directing the first ever stage adaptation of the Soul classics-packed story, penned by Doyle himself no less, we literally – taking inspiration from the show’s incredible musical numbers – couldn’t Get No Satisfaction until we found out more.

Fast forward six months and the show is gearing up for this week’s opening night: guitars tuned, set list in place and Doyle’s hilarious – parental warning: sweary – script finely tuned.

Offering us a sneak preview into what we can expect from the rock ‘n’ roll show, here five members of the musical’s cast, West End regular Killian Donnelly, Backbeat’s Ben Fox, former Jersey Boy company member Matthew Wycliffe and West End newbies, law student turned leading man Denis Grindel and Irish performer Jessica Cervi, talk to us about life as part of a fictional band, keeping egos in check, downing pints and why their new talents include “sustaining a growl”…

Describe your character in six words.

Cervi: Honest, funny, witty, streetwise, crude, loyal.
Donnelly: Really, really, really, really, really crude.
Fox: Ex-sinner, hairy, positive, soul-wise, trumpeter.
Grindel: Dreamer, savvy, passionate, determined, Northsider, music-mastermind.
Wycliffe: Ginger, frustrated, hopeful, ginger… ginger… ginger.

Had you ever come across The Commitments before you were cast in the show?

Cervi: Yes of course. The film was released the year I was born and I grew up in a house who loved Roddy Doyle books. My brothers and I always watched the films [Doyle’s film adaptations] together when they were on. The Commitments was my favourite though, I never got sick of it, no matter how many times I’d seen it!
Donnelly: I had seen the movie years ago and loved it. I’d never read the book but my older brother and parents had. I was too young, therefore wasn’t allowed to read it. I constantly asked why they were laughing but was never told. I read the book about three years ago for the first time and I loved it.
Fox: [I knew] the film and the book.
Wycliffe: Yes. As a teenager I was in loads of bands and groups. We used to watch the film and learn the soundtrack to play at gigs.

Have you had to learn any special musical talents for the show?

Cervi: No thank God. That would stress me right out! I am learning the piano at the moment though, but at a slow pace.
Donnelly: “Sustaining a growl” and “Adjust myself in my underwear”. Sounds crazy but these were genuine notes from the musical director and director. My character, Deco, is the lead singer of the band so therefore I just have to look after my voice properly. So after the show I’m pretty much straight home. Oh I also have to consume a pint and a cream éclair in less than 30 seconds. It’s the greatest job in the world.
Fox: An Irish accent!
Grindel: As Jimmy, the band manager, I leave the playing to my other cast members. In real life I play the piano and sing… but poor Jimmy can’t sing, a skill which we learn he would love to possess.
Wycliffe: Nope.

Have you ever been in a band in real life?

Cervi: No never. I would love to and defo a soul band. It’s by far my favourite type of music. I grew up listening to all the greats. It’s an amazing musical and I love getting to sing the classics every night. It’s ideal!
Donnelly: I was. Myself, my brother and my friend Barry had a group. We played pub gigs, weddings etc. Back of a car and driving around Ireland. Guitar, backing tracks playing anything and everything that made the public sing along. What were we called I hear you scream?… Natural Curiosity! (Always spelt wrong on the posters).
Fox: Yes, a punk band called Pub.
Grindel: When I was a kid I was in a band with my neighbour Aoife, so we put together our initials and called ourselves D’n A… We thought we were cool. Bit tragic.
Wycliffe: Yes! Soul, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie woogie… it’s all fun!

In the story the band breaks down because of a clash of egos. How do you all keep your egos in check when you’re starring in a West End show?

Cervi: Well I come from a very humble background and never take anything in life for granted! Why should we? No one knows what’s down the road, you just have to work hard and appreciate what you have every night on stage. I am honestly grateful and feel blessed to be there living the dream.
Donnelly: I actually think being able to roar and abuse each other on stage helps. We leave any aggression we have on stage. The cast is incredible and very supportive. Any decision or choice someone has offered during rehearsals has been encouraged and that support reflects in the wings. So therefore if there ever was a moment where someone needs to “vent”, they can just roar abuse at someone during a scene and it will look natural. It’s the best gig.
Fox: Don’t talk to anyone in the cast for the duration of the contract.
Grindel: We are all mates, but sometimes I do wonder whether some of the on stage fighting is really our frustrated cast mates getting rid of some tension!
Wycliffe: The cast of The Commitments are all really grounded. We’re lucky in that respect. Everyone is here for the same reason, to put on a fantastic show and I think that really shines through.

How will you be spending your days during the run of the show?

Cervi: Working with Jamie [Lloyd] has really triggered my interest in plays, so I’m looking forward to catching as many matinees [as I can] and reading a lot of plays. Also to learn piano and just hang out with friends.
Donnelly: Well right now we’re in previews so are rehearsing every day. When the show has settled and found its feet I “may” re-join a gym… or I’ll buy the new Grand Theft Auto and kiss the days goodbye.
Fox: With my wife and daughter.
Grindel: Sleeping. And not swearing! I will probably spend the daytimes easing myself back into society – the last two months I have done nothing but rehearse for the show.
Wycliffe: Going to the gym, writing and recording an album, cycling and singing.

What’s your favourite moment in the production?

Cervi: There are so many, but if I had to pick one it would be when the entire cast is on stage for Try A Little Tenderness, the feeling is electric, we feel like rock stars!
Donnelly: My favourite moment in the show is when the band play Midnight Mover. It’s one of the first songs the band rehearses and begins to sound genuinely “okay”. The trick about The Commitments is we had to make it believable that we are a band rehearsing for the first time. Therefore every bum note is choreographed in the music. Midnight Mover is the first time they see a glint of magic and it’s such an exciting scene to be a part of.
Fox: I get to snog all three Commitmentettes. Question answered.
Grindel: My favourite moment in the production is the encore, when I look across stage to my good friend Jess [Cervi], who is also making her West End debut. We both give each other the same look, as if to say “What the hell?!” We can’t believe our luck to be in this show.
Wycliffe: The audience’s reaction to an unexpected violent moment! It totally catches them off guard.

In conclusion, why should people come and see The Commitments?

Cervi: Because it’s unlike anything that’s been in the West End. A guaranteed good laugh and amazing music; you will leave the theatre wanting more.
Donnelly: If you like to see a great story with memorable characters, come and see The Commitments. If you like to hear great songs such as Mustang Sally, Try A little Tenderness and [In The] Midnight Hour, come and see The Commitments, and finally if you’d like to have a great night out and laugh come and see us.
Fox: To celebrate youth and feel young.
Grindel: Come along and see us, it’s funny, crude, Irish, violent with a story that we all can relate to – a group of kids trying to do something with their lives, wanting to be bigger than who they are.
Wycliffe: It’s a great story of the rise and fall of a band with fantastic performances, characters and a brilliant soundtrack. Plus, it’s REALLY funny!

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"I have to consume a pint and a cream éclair in less than 30 seconds. It’s the greatest job in the world."