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!

Review – We Will Rock You, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st March 2022

We Will Rock YouThe 20th Anniversary Tour of this hugely successful show charges headfirst into Northampton for a week that’s already virtually sold out. Any show that can stimulate such anticipation and excitement is obviously doing something right. Cards on the Table time: I’m not really a fan of Queen. I know, I know, pipe down with your faux-outrage. But I’ve always found their style to be overblown and self-important; and the continued reverence about their output by the media and fans hasn’t made it any easier for me to start appreciating them. And indeed, when We Will Rock You makes direct reference to Queen it’s by elevating them to a cult religious status, which I find a right turn-off. There are a handful of their songs that I like; but the prospect of 2 hours 45 minutes of undiluted Queen made me feel bilious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that far and away the best thing about this show is the music! More of that later…

The opening sequence strongly recalled a musical that I truly hated: Dave Clark’s Time, a pompous, vacuous show from 1986 that we endured for what felt like several hours at London’s Dominion Theatre (which is where We Will Rock You held sway for an extraordinary twelve years). I clutched my armrest wondering if I was going to hate this too. And, overall, I didn’t. But I have some big reservations about it.

Galileo and ScaramoucheLet’s accentuate the positive. Production-wise, it’s magnificent. At the back of the stage, constantly changing images, cameras, LEDs and so on provide a wonderful depth to the stage action, suggesting mood, locations, and the mindless backing masses who populate the sterile Gaga World into which the iPlanet has developed. (Bear with me). Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed at the back of the stage is Zachary Flis’ amazing band who whack out the familiar numbers with gusto. It’s loud, by the way – very loud. At times my seat rumbled with reverberation so much I though I was preparing for take-off. Kentaur’s costumes and wigs are a production in themselves, reflecting the power of the oppressors, the simplicity of the protagonists, and the eccentricity of the Bohemians. Visually the whole thing is astounding.

the CastThere are also some fantastic individual performances. Almost entirely across the board, the female performers outshine the guys at every level. Martina Ciabatti Mennell’s Meat has a great voice and personality and brought enormous brightness to her role. As the ultimate baddie, Jenny O’Leary’s Killer Queen has an extraordinary stage presence and a belter of a voice. For me, the complete star of the show is Elena Skye as Scaramouche. The first thing Scaramouche does is sing Somebody to Love (a song I had never previously rated) and it was captivating, moving, gutsy and utterly brilliant. She is a fabulous singer, gave a fantastic characterisation to the role, and had the best feeling for the comedy of the piece of anyone in the cast.

Scaramouche and the Gaga GirlsAh yes, the comedy. The book is by Ben Elton. The Man from Auntie. The writer of witty, satirical, provocative, inventive novels. The man behind the inspirational anarchy of The Young Ones. The creator of arguably the best sitcom every written, Blackadder (well, series 2 and 4 anyway). His job was to devise a cunning plot that incorporates Queen songs and provide entertaining bridging material between them. So was he as cunning as a fox that’s just been made Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? No. I’m racking my brain to think of a book to a musical that’s more lame and lamentable than his contribution to We Will Rock You. His hero, Galileo, speaks in song lyrics; funny the first time, but it quickly palls. And whilst the early part of the show allows for some of the songs to fit in nicely with the plot, by the time we get to the second Act all hell breaks loose and they get plonked in Wherever, whenever (damn, I’m doing it now.) Elton obviously couldn’t fit in Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions and We Will Rock You into the story, so they’re just an addition tucked into the end of the show. To be fair, there are two jokes. One is visual, when Galileo and Scaramouche decide they need to be careful when they settle down for a night of nookie. The other relates to the length of Brian May’s guitar solos. Otherwise it pootles along punfully; most of the characters are two-dimensional – those who aren’t are one-dimensional. It would need a gifted, independent director with a highly developed critical filter to keep this show on the straight and narrow. Remind me who the director is? Ah yes, Ben Elton. I don’t expect he suggested many cuts.

Curtain CallThe plot itself also doesn’t bear much analysis. Set sometime in the future, live music is banned, and anyone who attempts to play music is punished. Hang on, isn’t that the plot of Footloose? Anyway. There’s a bunch of rebels called the Bohemians (geddit?) who are like a religious cult who believe there is a sacred text (which basically contains the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, not that they know that) and who have a few relics, including an old television and a video tape. It’s bizarre then, that, for presumably decades of misery, no one ever thought to put the video tape in the video recorder underneath the TV. Also bizarre that they mispronounce “video tape” “television” and “Brian” as though they were some long-dead foreign language, even though they pronounce everything else from that same language correctly. They’ve never heard of America, but they do understand the concept of Paris (Killer Queen lyrics) and Euro-Disney (lame joke). I’ll leave the textual analysis there, I think.

Rocky BohemiansIf it wasn’t for the Queen songs, the show would be dire. But then, without Queen, the show wouldn’t have existed! As a non-fan, I really enjoyed my two favourite songs Killer Queen and Don’t Stop Me Now, and Ian McIntosh as Galileo did pull out all the stops for a rousing performance of We are the Champions at the end. So it’s a resounding yes to the production values, music and star performances, and a resounding no to the book. The more you like Queen, the more you’ll like this show. But the incorporation of songs into the plot, and the “comic” element of the text made me realise what a masterpiece Mamma Mia is.

P. S. The book for Time is worse. Time thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least We Will Rock You doesn’t take itself seriously.

Production photos by Johan Persson

3-starsThree-sy does it!