What makes a show a musical and what makes a show a play with music. It’s a thin line and one that many shows walk like a tightrope, especially when said show is about a musical act itself. ‘The Commitments’, currently touring the UK, walks this line, balancing music with story in a humorous and believable tale of a band trying to make it big.
Based on the Roddy Doyle book, ‘The Commitments’ tells the tale of a group growing up in Dublin in the 1980’s, brought together by young aspiring band manager Jimmie Rabbitte (played by James Killeen) to form a soul group. To Jimmie, soul is everything and he sees a bright future for the band, bringing soul to the working class and getting themselves out of Dublin. But his band members are big characters, big personalities, who bounce off of each other in a bad way and that’s where the problems start. Lead singer Deco (Ian McIntosh) has an incredible voice, but has an ego that is just as big, drummer Billy (Ryan Kelly) has an anger problem, pianist James (Stephen O’Riain) is more focussed on his exams and the three girls all have eyes for horn player Joey ‘The Lips’ (Stuart Reid).
James Killeen’s Jimmie is determined and passionate, desperately trying to hold the band together as cracks open up and emotions take over. He really feels that ‘The Commitments’ could make it big, and even though the audience can see the personalities clashing and problems unfold, you do find yourself willing them on to succeed despite everything.
Ian McIntosh’s Deco impresses immensely, with powerhouse vocals raising the roof throughout. Deco is a character who always puts himself centre stage, no matter what everyone else might think, and many members of the band can’t stand it, especially drummer Billy. Nevertheless, Deco is a character that everyone in the audience loves, and McIntosh earns many a laugh.
The three girls Imelda, Natalie and Bernie, played by Ciara Mackey, Eve Kitchingman and Sarah Gardiner respectively add a wonderful dynamic to the band, full of sass and character, not afraid to put the men in their place. Gardiner, in my opinion, has a particularly wonderful voice which is thankfully given a chance to shine throughout. Honourable mentions must also to Callum Martin, who played the role of Dean at this performance, deciding between playing soul and playing Jazz, and Ronnie Yorke’s Mickah, full of rage and uncontainable energy, but devoted to the band as their bouncer.
Having seen this production during its West End Run and on its last UK Tour in 2017, I feel that the set has had a little bit of a revamp, to great success. A backdrop of flats set the scene, cleverly folding to reveal Jimmie’s home and opening up to become the much-loved local pub. Incredibly effective.
‘The Commitments’ is crammed full of well-known songs. From ‘Mr Pitiful’, and ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’ to ‘Proud Mary’, ‘Try a little Tenderness’ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, the music is smile inducing and high energy, sending you home after the show with many an earworm whizzing around your head. That being said, I’ve always found that a show full of songs that people know can be changed drastically by the reaction of the audience, and I have to admit that the Monday Night audience did feel a little bit on the quiet side. Despite this, the cast gave it their absolute all and everyone was on their feet and enjoying every second of it at the impressive crowd-pleasing finale.
Going back to what I said at the beginning about the thin line between a musical and a play with song, I would probably lean towards the side of this being more of a play with song. To me, a musical sees characters breaking into song at any moment, their personal emotions becoming musical numbers. A play with song sees songs performed just as that, a performance, a band on a stage singing a song. And that’s ‘The Commitments’.
The plot line rattles along at a speedy pace, with the first act being full of lots of characters being introduced quickly and the second act being full of musical performances. Some of the jokes seem a little bit rushed, thrown away to move onto the next song and the somewhat abrupt ending leaves the audience with a couple of unanswered questions.
To conclude, ‘The Commitments’ is funny, fun, and packed full of soul. It’s grit mixed with comedy, music mixed with drama, and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.