Bizarre but true: For all its raucous soul sound, “The Commitments” turns out to be a reinvention of old-fashioned Mickey-and-Judy musicals. But where they “put the show on right here,” this is Roddy Doyle’s tale (previously a novel and the 1991 Alan Parker movie) of a wannabe manager kicking a feckless bunch of no-hope musicians into a band. Going hell-for-leather at the material, director Jamie Lloyd’s bust-a-gut production risks bludgeoning the audience, but resistance is ultimately futile. There are flaws aplenty, but the cast’s megawatt energy and musicianship, plus the knockout vocals of lead singer Killian Donnelly, prove overwhelming.
The story arc is simple. Young, idealistic Jimmy (taut Denis Grindel) is living with his parents in a rundown part of Dublin in 1986, dreaming of putting together a soul band. Which, in the blinking of an eye, he does. From there it’s simply a case of: Will they be any good? Yes. But will their wildly contrasting outlooks, tastes and personalities tear them apart? Let’s see.
Lloyd’s impressive hallmarks of theatrical fluidity and tightly focused energy are everywhere apparent, especially in terms of the book, which Doyle himself has adapted from his own dialogue-rich novel. At its best, it retains the original’s pungent, high-swearing authenticity. But there are dramaturgical troughs because his page dialogue doesn’t fully carry the weight and subtext necessary for effective stage dialogue.
To disguise this, Lloyd smartly uses every possible technique at his disposal. He cuts scenes up, interleaving them with snatches of music to avoid dangerously close scrutiny of the writing.
Furthermore, he ensures almost every single scene is played loud and fast. Although that keeps the story running at breakneck speed, the pace is relentless, particularly in the first act. The cartoon-like speed of character establishment and band formation creates laughs — a sequence of one-liner dud auditions is very funny — but for much of the time there’s too little texture for true engagement. And it also means that Doyle’s (over)stated political aims — music is a way out of Dublin’s social problems and soul is “the music of the people” — wind up being, well, statements.
Jimmy is much given to yelling that The Commitments is “Dublin’s hardest-working band,” and it’s as if everyone in the show is determined to prove it true. No one talks when they can yell, and no one appears to have entertained the notion of a mixed emotion. For much of the time it feels as if the production is being played at the audience rather than to it.
And yet, when they really start to play, none of this matters. We watch the band in rehearsal through both snatches of classic songs and full performances, and hearing high-octane live versions of classics like “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour” sung and played live with such passion is exhilarating. In the second half, the fully staged version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” lifts the roof.
It’s at that moment that you suddenly understand the strength of Lloyd’s entire production. Not only is the perfectly staged number exhilaratingly lit and choreographed by Jon Clark and Ann Yee in full concert mode, it’s a superb contrast to Soutra Gilmour’s impressively achieved rough-and-ready aesthetic that has thus far dominated the proceedings. Visible stagehands drag onstage impoverished rooms on trucks vividly capturing the characters’ working-class Dublin milieu. To have made the show look smarter and better and more “West End” would have killed its, you should pardon the pun, soul.
Indeed, the only thing that’s not rough here is the musicianship. As the borderline deranged lead singer, Donnelly, a young West End regular in the likes of “The Phantom of the Opera,” reveals not just killer comic timing but a rare voice of truly sensational raw power. It’s a star-making performance. In the woefully underwritten female trio of backing singers, Stephanie McKeon lets rip whenever she has the opportunity.
In common with past non-traditional-showtune musicals attempting to broaden appeal — “Spring Awakening,” etc. — the looming question is: Will it find its audience? Lloyd’s company is working at full pelt, but will the younger audiences it’s aimed at shell out £62.50 for a ticket? The industry will be watching.