Originally published on London Box Office
The Palace Theatre is not a small place. Situated on the junction between the two main roads in London’s West End, it commands an almost perfect spot to catch the eye of tourists, theatregoers and commuters alike. As such, you expect a certain calibre of production at this venue; the theatre is almost the poster boy for the rest of the industry so it needs to host something that brings in the crowds and fill the expansive and therefore expensive space. So when I heard that The Commitments had extended its run here, I thought that this must be a musical with some staying power. I went along with some friends to see whether it stacked up to expectation. By the time I got home a few hours later I had completely forgotten that the show even existed.
The story (if you can call it that) of Roddy Doyle’s novel and Oscar-nominated 1991 film adaptation describes how Jimmy (Denis Grindel) puts together a band from novice performers in 1980’s Dublin, with the intention of bringing soul music back into the Irish music scene. Picking people out of working class backgrounds from an ad in the paper, the result is a group of hot-headed, opinionated and prickly Irish friends who eventually create a piece of musical history.
There were good things to say about the production, despite the tone of this review so far. The songs (as expected) were incredible – the musical had a star-studded back catalogue to draw from and picked some of the biggest hits from last century. The actors themselves all had decent voices, so you didn’t feel as if they weren’t doing justice to such greats of soul as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. One of the male leads in particular was a 5 star singer – Dec (Brian Gilligan) had the range to take on Try a Little Tenderness and get a standing ovation from the audience, me included. His range reminded me of Steven Tyler (the lead singer from Aerosmith) with exceptional control in the higher register. Credit should also go to the three leading ladies – Imelda (Sarah O’Connor), Bernie (Jessica Cervi) and Natalie (understudied here by Amy Penston) worked well together with only a couple of slip-ups when as backing vocalists. However, it would have been nicer if the audience had had the pleasure of enjoying these incredible songs in their entirety – each performance seemed to be cut short by some interjection in the threadbare plotline at any possible opportunity.
From an acting perspective there were no stand-out performances; the most credit goes to Jimmy’s Da (Sean Kearns) with his dry, sarcastic and colourful one-liners that nicely punctuated the otherwise mundane dialogue (“Yoko Ono called. She said she’s gonna f**k you up!”). Deco (Gilligan) was obviously unhinged but the portrayal was too over the top and Joey (Anthony Hunt) as the dubious older soul in the group was far too pious and a bit creepy. The set and lighting were in keeping with the contrast between the glamour of the music industry vs. the concrete disparity of the 1980’s Dublin working class. The intentionally low production value of this play served in its favour – I really enjoyed the fact that you could see the stage hands moving the set around in scene changes and that the use of props was comically low value. Who needs a rainstorm when you can have a member of the cast sprinkling the other actors with a dripping hose?!
The other major issue with this particular musical was that of timing. When you pay money to see a production, there is an unwritten rule within the West End that you expect it to take about 2.5 hours including an interval. Of course there is always some leeway, but when this particular show looked to be very clearly concluding its barely tangible storyline only 2 hours into the show I was understandably disappointed, mixed in with being a touch relieved that the show wasn’t as long as I had feared. What then followed was the equivalent of a mini concert, initially made popular by We Will Rock You and taken on by many of the other jukebox musicals. For the next 30 minutes the audience was exposed to some additional songs from the soul back-catalogue whilst we were expected to get up and sing/ dance along. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a song and dance; indeed I fully appreciate Thriller: Live for this exact reason. The difference is that Thriller from the outset doesn’t try to be a musical with a storyline, as the audience is made very aware within the first few minutes that this is more a showcase of incredible songs from the greatest of performers. The Commitments attempted a storyline for 2 hours before eventually giving up (something I had done on the story long before) and playing songs as a fallback. I think it would have had more credibility if this was the entirety of the show from the start.
The saving grace of this musical was the music, which was never going to be anything other than wonderful. The remainder of this production is entirely forgettable and not the poster for the West End that I was expecting from this theatre. But it has just extended its run, so it’s obviously bringing in the audiences and credit to the production company for that.