Mixed bag for Jamie Lloyd's Commitments
Jamie Lloyd's production of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments opened at the Palace Theatre last night (8 September 2013), where it's currently booking until 26 January 2014
…I have mixed feelings about the new stage musical of The Commitments, which combines elements of both but somehow doesn't fly off the stage with any great theatrical pezazz in Jamie Lloyd's hard-working production. Partly this is due to the fact that nothing much happens… and the one significant component of the movie – sheer joy – is lacking. There are the great songs, of course, and there appears to be a really clever balance between the onstage performers and the offstage, unseen musicians… The personalities on the stage don't compare all that favourably with the movie cast… The show really comes together in the staging of the group's breakthrough number… The biggest weakness, though, is a disconnect between the lives and spirit of the characters and their oft-reiterated claim that "soul is the politics of the people,"…
The defining features of this stage version of The Commitments are noise and chaos… Killian Donnelly, an established West End presence who's on sensational form here… Jamie Lloyd's production has plenty of pace and energy. But while some of its roughness is intended, some seems less carefully managed. Despite the adaptation being Doyle's work, there aren't many subtleties. The more touching moments are lost amid the general raucousness… it feels more like a play about a struggling band who eventually serve up a rip-roaring concert. By the end the mood is boisterous enough to get the audience on its feet, but the upbeat second half can't eclipse the memory of an uncomfortably flimsy first 25 minutes…
…If only Doyle – who adapted his own book – and director Jamie Lloyd had tried to give things some semblance of plot, still more some properly defined characters, they might have broken the jukebox-musical mould. Instead, this show simply buys into a form that has delivered big profits in the West End, and probably will here, too… In the end, this laddish evening is little more than We Will Rock You for soul fans. If people flock, it will be to hear a slew of familiar hits delivered with real heart by a talented young cast who don't wait for the audience to start dancing in the aisles, but simply do it themselves… It won't be for the story of Jimmy and friends…
…The Commitments, in contrast, is thrillingly brash and raucous… The biggest compliment I can pay Jamie Lloyd's production is to say that it really has got soul. It's memorably gritty at times (the swear-word count is exceptionally high) and also proves wonderfully funny and touching. This is much more than a bog-standard compilation musical. The dialogue has a splendid sarky wit and the exhilaration of making music is beautifully caught… Soutra Gilmour has come up with a superb design… and the cast is outstanding. Denis Grindel has exactly the right mixture of charm, passion, wit and rat-like cunning… The star performance, though, comes from Killian Donnelly as The Commitments' lead singer, Deco… when Donnelly is in full cry, this hugely enjoyable show touches the sublime.
…the evening is much more successful as a staggered gig than as drama. Though Doyle himself wrote the book, the storytelling lacks texture; the crude banter has been drained of most of its saving charm and the characters all come over as two-dimensional comic types. Newcomer Denis Grindel is winning as the band's manager… Despite Soutra Gilmour's looming tower-block set, the stakes feel low and the mood blandly upbeat. Killian Donnelly is phenomenal… Persuasively charting their growing prowess, the engagingly cast band pound out the numbers with infectious zest and energy… And the encores, where the fourth wall is knocked down ("Hello, London!") in too calculatedly frenzy-inducing a fashion, reinforce the feeling that this show about soul is itself a mite soulless.
…There's the ageless appeal of soul classics (you should see the grans and teens swaying together to "Heard it through the Grapevine"), a dash of recession-friendly disaffection, and the comic poignancy of lads finding a purpose. Add Soutra Gilmour's note-perfect, 1980s Dublin set with witty slide-ons from back-bedroom to butcher's shop, and you've got a big-hearted, flash 'n' dazzle, raw and raucous big-night-out show… I took a few minutes to warm to The Commitments, and longer to its bland, clean-cut Jimmy (Denis Grindel), though he has his moments… Once the band is formed, the show becomes unstoppable fun, with plenty of big numbers, most of them different from the film… The girl backing singers (cause of the fights, obviously) struggle endearingly to get their backsides wiggling in synch, but gradually and magically the big sound builds.
…The stage version is less romantic, less interesting. It offers a pumpy night out full of noisy tunes played by a musically competent cast… You certainly get your money's worth and, blimey, it's noisy. From the off it's all go, both in volume and lighting… I found it all faintly exhausting and blunt… Barnaby Southgate does a good turn as a donnish pianist. Sarah O'Connor, Stephanie McKeon and Jessica Cervi brighten proceedings as the backing singers. Ben Fox plays the randy, middle-aged trumpeter… Jamie Lloyd's over-fussy direction necessitates endless shifting of scenery. The audience is told so often that the band is brilliant that it may eventually believe the publicity. I would have preferred to get there without quite so much over-amplified prodding.