New Wimbledon Theatre – until 14 January 2023
Reviewed by Philip Brown
The Commitments ride once again! Get ready ladies and gentlemen, to put your working class hands together, to pinch a phrase, and applaud a fervent feast of feel-good. And while you’re at it, prepare those working class feet for action. Based on a debut novel by Roddy Doyle, The Commitments has been entertaining audiences across 5 decades, spawning a Bafta award winning film in the 90s along with 2 hit (platinum and gold) soundtrack albums, a successful, long running musical in the 2010s and, on this evidence, a stonking revival of the stage show to brighten up the 2020s.. For any hermits who may have missed out on all all this history, the story is simple – young working class youths from the north side of Dublin form a band. But it’s all about the way you tell ‘em and this is told exceedingly well.
It’s really a show of 2 halves. The first necessarily sets the scene and the band’s early development, whilst the second has more songs and sees the band in full-on gig mode building the intensity to an exhilarating finale that did have the audience out of their seats dancing.
Things kick off with a powerful ensemble number (Proud Mary) before switching focus to the main story – a couple of buskers Outspan (played by Michael Mahoney) and Derek (Guy Freeman) who give up on their current band in disgust at the lack of impact their “art school shite” is making. (Get used to the word – it and others are well used in the show). They consult local musicologist Jimmy Rabbitte (James Killeen looking uncannily like a young Stephen Mangan) about their lack of success. In an imaginatively and comically choreographed scene at Jimmy’s house with his unreconstructed Da (Nigel Pivaro – lovely cameo), they audition recruits, who qualify by having soul as well as not coming from the south side, for the world’s hardest working band. Meanwhile, Jimmy expounds on how to be different, soul, and what’s “in”. According to Jimmy, what’s “in” is real sex (not mush), so “the time has come to put riding back into rock ’n’ roll”.
Enter lead singer Deco (quite brilliantly played by Ian Macintosh), followed by the rest of the band which memorably includes the much older Joey the Lips Fagan (a beautifully enigmatic Stuart Reid) – a trumpet player full of biblical attitude, libidinous intent and the dubious claim he has played with all the soul greats in the States. Jimmy tutors the newly assembled band in his philosophy – songs should be about where you’re from and the people you come from – with the Irish being the Blacks of Europe, Dublners the Blacks of Ireland, and the north side the Blacks of Dublin, “Say it aloud, I’m Black and I’m proud” (to quote the great James Brown). The Commitments along with the wonderful trio of female backing singers – the Commitmentettes – take to the rehearsal room, their first gig at the local Community Hall and then hit the road with a repertoire of some of the greatest 60s and 70s soul music ever written.
There were many notable moments – too many to single out each and every one. The writing is excellent – very funny with memorable, realistic and sharp dialogue. The performances are well honed with precision timing – every punchline delivered to the millisecond. The two leads, James Killeen (as Jimmy), and Ian McIntosh (as Deco) excelled. Ian McInstosh in particular has a wonderful voice for soul music and is a spectacular performer. The musicianship was exemplary. The Commitmentettes – Imelda (played by Ciara Mackey), Natalie (Eve Kitchingman) and Bernie (Sarah Gardiner) played the backing vocalist role to perfection but each also shone taking lead vocals on some songs. Ronnie Yorke (playing Mickah/Ray) had an amusing/threatening cameo as doorman/security and then showed his versatility by taking over the drum stool as the inevitable personality clashes over Deco’s timekeeping splintered the band. For me, one of the revelations of the evening was the beautiful performance of “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate” originally by the Persuaders
The Commitments is a thoroughly uplifting show that will linger long in the memory, but there is also something pleasingly recursive about its timing. Roddy Doyle was right about authentic Motown and Memphis soul music being timeless. The original story is about the “saviours of soul” reengaging an audience brought up on anaemic “art school shite” with genuine, gutsy music that goes beyond musical fashion. Every revival of the story serves to reintroduce a superb catalogue of music to a new audience, and judging by the New Wimbledon Theatre last night, it’s going down a storm.