Theatre Review: The Commitments

Roddy Doyle's The Commitments

Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Commitments’ should be a great musical adaptation, with its nostalgia, great characters and plethora of beloved songs, but somehow it doesn’t quite work, says Brian Finnegan.


On paper The Commitments is a musical adaptation made in heaven. With a book by Roddy Doyle based on his perennially enjoyable novel, which became a global hit film in the ’90s that spawned a number one album featuring a raft of solid gold soul classics, not to mention a touring band made up of the film’s cast, it has all the elements in place for a great night out at the theatre – nostalgia, youthful exuberance, a familiar ‘let’s put on a show’ story, and a line-up of songs beloved across the generations.

The show’s opening number confirms this, as a women standing by an upright piano belts out Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘Proud Mary’, and the cast joins in. The setting is a pub in Doyle’s fictional Barrytown, everyone’s swilling pints, and the atmosphere in the theatre instantly gets giddy. The stall is being set out, it seems – The Commitments is a big old sing-along we’re all going to exuberantly participate in, joyfully recalling Dublin in the rare(ish) old times.



Unfortunately that turns out not to be the case. Unsurprisingly director C Jay Ranger does her best to emulate the frenetic energy of Alan Parker’s film, which made much of the freshness of its unknown cast of amateurs, but here that energy constantly gets in the way. There is barely a moment in this musical when someone isn’t, or a crowd someone’s aren’t moving about the stage, leaving precious little time for character development or emotional heart. It also provides a problem in terms of the music.

Jukebox musicals, with varying degrees of success, shoehorn songs in to the action in the traditional sense of a show, to progress story along – therefore we might learn that the mother in the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia! has financial woes when she sings ‘Money Money Money’. Because this can’t be done with the soul hits that pepper The Commitments, the action has to progress during the songs, which means there are constant breaks for bits of dialogue, which gives the whole thing an uneven effect. Much of the action takes place during rehearsals, so the cast are all doing different things, gadding about here and there during numbers that don’t quite fully come together, adding to the frustration of never quite hearing the whole song.


‘The Commitments’ runs at The Bord Gais Energy Theatre until October 29, booking here.


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The story is also a problem, in that not much happens. Amid apathy and unemployment in 1980s Northside Dublin, entrepreneurial Jimmy Rabbitte decides to put a band together – not a synth band like the popular acts of the time, but a soul ensemble, his goal being to bring sexy back to the music scene. Gathering a bunch of enthusiastic misfits, he creates The Commitments, a band pivoted around lead singer, Deco, who has the voice of a soul God and an ego to match, which threatens to put the kibosh on the whole endeavor.

For a musical to really work, the stakes, emotional or otherwise, need to be high, but while there’s conflict between band members here, that’s about it. A film can hone in on a character to make up for a lack of plot, but there are no close-ups on this stage, and we’re left rooting for no one in particular. In an effort for us to emotionally connect to Jimmy he’s given what seems like an arbitrary romance with one of the trio of girl singers, Imelda, but this is played out in two fleeting scenes, and the two never get to explore their relationship, in song or otherwise.

Kudos must go to the hugely talented cast members who keep this show on the road despite its limitations. Brian Gilligan as Deco has the voice (if not the prowling sexiness of Andrew Strong who embodied Deco in the film) to hit all the right notes, while Andrew Linnie’s Jimmy ably holds it all together, flitting from one set to the next. The heart of the film and book was Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagin, with his soul evangelism and murky back-story, and while here he arrives on stage on a moped in blaze of glory, which made the audience whoop, Alex McMorran who plays him is given little else to do beyond spout his philosophy of soul, and exhibit some discomforting misogyny.

The action ends suddenly, when Joey departs for America and Jimmy and Imelda’s romance comes to it’s premature climax, and then we’re treated to an encore featuring hits, including the film’s lead song, ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. It occurred to me that I might have turned into an old curmudgeon at this point. The people around me seemed to be loving it, and by the time the cast was taking their bows, they were ecstatic.

It’s hard to make a musical work, and there are certainly parts of The Commitments that do, but for the most part it’s a show that doesn’t quite pull at the heartstrings or have you singing along. In its opening moments, I thought we might just be about to see the first great Irish musical, but sadly The Commitments doesn’t quite pull it out of the bag.


‘The Commitments’ runs at The Bord Gais Energy Theatre until October 29, booking here.

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