Review – The Commitments, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th April 2023

The CommitmentsHere’s another of those shows were you can sit your grandchild on your knee and say, you know little one, I can remember all the way back to the day when I first booked to see The Commitments, as they gaze open eyed at you in wonder. 2019, I think it was, when this touring production of the musical inspired by Roddy Doyle’s novel (and of course the film of the same name) first raised its head above the parapet. Since then, a lot of water’s gone under that old bridge, as Brenda Lee might say. But finally it arrives in Northampton to considerable excitement and anticipation.

RehearsalMy usual confession: I’ve neither seen the film nor read the book, so I came to the show fairly ignorant as to what I might expect. In a nutshell, not a lot happens. Jimmy decides to create a band; they rehearse, do a few gigs, fight among themselves and then split up. There’s not really a lot more to tell, plot-wise. But I know the film – at least – has a big place in many people’s hearts and memories, so there’s got to be more to the appeal than its story. And there is – it’s the music.

Hells HoleApparently, you can’t refer to The Commitments as a jukebox musical, because the music is diegetic. In other words, the characters know the music is being played and performed as part of their real life experience. In most musicals, the characters don’t know they’re singing – it’s just what the genre imposes on them. But in The Commitments, all the songs are sung and performed knowingly, deliberately. If the show had a searing, intense storyline, the diegetic music would probably slow it down and make it very stop-starty. However, with little plot, it doesn’t matter. And certainly, the show crams in loads of soul classics from the 60s and 70s, and who doesn’t love a reminder of that?

Checking out albumsThere is a downside, though, even to the music; the first act largely sees the band being created and going through its early rehearsals before Jimmy decides they’re good enough to play in public. As a result, a lot of the music performance in the first half has a genuine sense of rehearsal – which is fully in keeping with the story. But it nevertheless still feels like a rehearsal to the audience, lacking polish and accuracy, all a bit haphazard. This doesn’t help the feelgood factor of the show to get going until the second half, when the music is all played at true performance standard. For me, only one musical number in the Deco and the girlsfirst act stood out – What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. Once we’re in the second half it’s a very different matter, and the performance (and subtext) of, for example, Thin Line Between Love and Hate works incredibly well, giving you goosebumps. The main substance of the show ends abruptly, to lead into a twenty minute concert-style ending with everyone on their feet. There are a couple of showstoppers here, but it also ends with Try a Little Tenderness, which I thought gave it a surprisingly downbeat finale.

DrinkersThe Commitments group themselves are a disparate bunch of characters, with Jimmy as a kind of central Everyman figure who does his best to unite them all together. His two mates are Outspan – who seems reasonably normal – and Derek, who’s sex mad but with little experience of it. The audition scene is nicely staged as they witness a long line of no-hopers coming to their door, none of whom is suitable. So Jimmy tracks down the other members, to include an egghead research student, James, an older Bible basher (who nevertheless loves the ladies) Joey, and the jazz-leaning Dean. He brings in three young women, Imelda, Natalie and Bernie, to act as backing singers, much to Derek’s delight. He also recruits Mickah, a skinhead bouncer who causes much more trouble than he prevents.

DecoInto this mix Jimmy invites the central character of Deco. The lead singer of the group, Deco is a troubled soul. He’s disrespectful, aggressive, arrogant, and a general nuisance. He turns up late, barges onto the stage, grabs the microphone from whoever is covering for him and makes it all about him. He causes frictions between the group members. They put up with him because of his amazing voice, but if he was in your gang, he’d be the one you’d seek to avoid because, in common parlance, he’s just a complete prick. A time bomb waiting to go off, the characterisation of Deco is very convincingly portrayed. So it then becomes very difficult for the audience to see him as the hero, which is what the concert aspect of the show requires us to do. If it is designed to be an alienation technique it works very effectively. But I don’t sense that it is.

Da's houseTim Blazdell’s set is both functional and atmospheric; it creates spacious bar/performing areas, it suggests the drab balcony walkways of council flats, and it implies the cramped living conditions of the house that Jimmy shares with his Da. Jason Taylor’s lighting design is effective, if unsubtle; and Adam Smith’s backstage band chucks out the tunes with brashness and energy. Sadly, Roddy Doyle’s book is underwhelming; and the prime cause of what I particularly felt in the first act, and what is the unforgivable crime of the theatre – it got rather boring.

BillyThere were also a couple of moments that completely jarred with me. There’s no reason for Deco’s  gratuitous underpants revelation, that just encouraged some members of the audience to whoop with lustful fervour. And I wasn’t enamoured with Jimmy’s introduction to the concert section when, having established if there were any Irish people in, he welcomed them warmly, but then to any English people in he just thanked them for their money. Yes, I know it’s meant to be funny. I didn’t think it was.

MickahFortunately the evening is livened up by some excellent performances. Despite the above, James Killeen is terrific as Jimmy; a long-suffering visionary who wants the band to reflect his own politics. Michael Mahony and Guy Freeman create a good partnership as Outspan and Derek, with a nice sense of goofy fun. Ryan Kelly is very good as the defensive and slightly belligerent drummer Billy – excellent live drum playing – and, understudying the role of Joey, Ed Thorpe brought a convincing element of older religious hypocrisy. Ciara Mackey, Eve Kitchingman and Sarah Gardiner bring terrific vocals and a general touch of class to the proceedings. And Nigel Pivaro is great fun as Jimmy’s Da, shouting either encouragement for his son’s managerial style or to turn that racket down when he’s trying to watch TV.

PerformanceBut the plaudits certainly deserve to go to Ian McIntosh for his performance as Deco. A superb stage presence, and a terrific voice; an unsettling sense of unpredictable menace when Deco’s on the warpath, mixed with a cheeky grin when he’s out of character. Musically it’s a very strong show, but it’s light on story and slow to develop. An odd mix – but the majority of the Press Night Patrons seemed to have a good time!

Production Photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy does it!