Jamie Lloyd has been juggling so many work commitments of late it’s a miracle that he had time for his most recent musical endeavour, but fans of Roddy Doyle’s novel and its subsequent film adaptation will no doubt be pleased that he did, with the result a soul-packed evening of lively concert-style entertainment.
The Commitments sees the acclaimed director join forces once again with designer Soutra Gilmour, who worked on all three productions in his star-studded Trafalgar Transformed season, to inject dramatic life into the Dublin-set tale. While Lloyd lends his deft theatrical touch to create a raw and gritty production, Gilmour spectacularly evokes its council estate setting with an imposing tower block design that takes the action to every corner of the ceiling-high structure with its abundance of windows and raised platforms.
It is rare that a musical’s cast should ever be tasked with singing intentionally out of tune, but such is the plot of The Commitments, which charts the rise and fall of a soul band as they journey from humble working-class youths to compelling entertainers, the wit of the show’s opening scenes effectively disguising the deliberate bum notes.
Though penned by Doyle, there is something about the stage play that doesn’t quite capture the passion of the budding musicians that was so effectively displayed in the 1991 film, but what the characters lack in depth they make up for in comedy value. The primary example comes in the form of Joe Woolmer as Mickah, a thuggish skinhead who learns to channel his aggression by swapping head-butting for drum-bashing, evolving from the group’s irate, seemingly self-appointed, security guard to a valued member of the band.
Andrew Linnie raises laughs as the squeaky saxophone player with a penchant for jazz, Barnaby Southgate is endearing in his understated role as geeky piano-playing James whose hunger for soul proves less important than his science exams and Denis Grindel as the man who makes it all happen, though sometimes unconvincing in his drive to succeed, makes up for it with his enthusiastic gestures, brimming attitude and boastful swagger.
Among this plethora of Irish performers, all of whom bring undeniable talent to the production, it is Killian Donnelly who shines brightest as the band’s lead singer Deco, his arrogance, charisma and talent providing not only a compelling performance but also a genuinely realistic reason for the group’s demise.
Led by a strong cast, which also includes Sarah O’Connor, Stephanie McKeon and Jessica Cervi as tuneful Commitmentettes, the musical serves up more soul than a linguistically challenged fishmonger, with legendary tunes including I Heard It Through The Grapevine, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, Mustang Sally, Papa Was A Rolling Stone and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, all of which are lent a raspy grittiness by Donnelly, whose roaring passion for belting out hits is curbed by nothing. Not even a mouthful of chips.
If Donnelly’s self-assured Deco were to rate the evening’s entertainment, he would describe it as “brilliant”, and with every member of the press night audience on their feet, it seems that many would agree.