It’s a difficult job to take on a classic book or film and bring it to the stage, but that task is done with style in The Commitments as it passes through New Wimbledon Theatre this week: although it’s perhaps more aptly described as a ‘Commitments Lite’ version.
The story is a straightforward one. Jimmy (James Killeen) pulls together a soul band from the most unlikely characters in the town, who draw on the essence of being Dubliners to create their own original sound and distinctive personality. The band is, for a fleeting moment, a massive success before falling apart. But in that time these rough and ready figures are granted new possibility, escaping their mundane lives to achieve and be celebrated, if only for a short while. The script, by the great Roddy Doyle himself, still pulls in some of the political aspects of his original tale, but touches on them only lightly, leaving the music to do most of the hard work. And this cast may well be “the hardest working band in the world” as they provide an exuberantly joyful, jump-up-and-dance abundance of excellent soul classics, alongside cheeky humour.
The show is packed full of fantastic numbers, performed energetically by an enormously talented array of actor-musicians. It’s supported by a visceral sound design from Rory Madden which allows you to physically engage with the music. Ian McIntosh as Deco is a far cry from Andrew Strong who, with his greasy hair and dodgy teeth, played him in the movie. Even whilst stuffing chips in his mouth as he sings and wearing grubby trackie bottoms (or Superman grundies) he’s still eye candy. And oh boy, he does the job brilliantly. With an impressive range and wonderful voice Mcintosh exudes shedloads of charisma, performing with just the right amount of arrogance to remain likeable. His performance rises to a sensational conclusion with ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ in the closing ‘gig’ section. The whole audience was buzzing, up on their feet and clapping along.
He’s accompanied by a selection of superb performers in the rest of the band, and it’s satisfying – even surprising sometimes – when they each get to showcase what they’re capable of. Ciara Mackey, Eve Kitchingman and Sarah Gardiner in particular as the backing singers are excellent. Dynamic choreography by Jemma Sawyer brings their numbers to life, whilst making good use of the stage. Some of the characterisation is drawn a little cartoony, such as Guy Freeman’s Derek and Ronnie Yorke’s Mickah the skinhead. It in no way impacts on how enjoyable the production is, but does emphasise the quite shallow depth of the storyline.
Tim Blazdell’s flexible set design seems simple, but is actually a cleverly multi-layered collection of spaces that open up effortlessly, allowing multiple scenes to run quickly into each other and keeping the momentum of the action flowing. It is used to great effect when Jimmy is holding try-outs in his front room and a series of hilarious but failing auditionees perform in rapid succession, the door literally slammed in their faces each time. The design’s authentic urban grubbiness also juxtaposes effectively with the impressive beauty of the music created by the band, elevating it still further as performance gives the characters something to really live for. Joy and delight override an enormous banner reminding us that ‘Heroin Kills’.
Yes, this production may be a little light on substance if you want an authentic recreation of the book or film. However, it delightfully distils the essence of Doyle’s work. If you’re looking for a really feelgood night out with friends this is undoubtedly the show for you. It’s invigorating, funny and, most of all, filled with superb music, performed by a truly talented ensemble. You won’t be able to resist singing along to.
Book: Roddy Doyle
Director: Andrew Linnie
Set Designer: Tim Blazdell
Costume Designer: Alice Lessing
Musical Supervisor & Arranger: Alan Williams
Movement Director: Jenny Sawyer
Lighting Designer: Jason Taylor
Sound Designer: Rory Madden
The Commitments plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 1 July. Further information and bookings can be found here.