Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments is one of those films that never fails to make me smile. Soul music, set against the backdrop of mid 80’s Dublin. Misfits and unlikely stars, coming together for one short period of time, to live out the fantasy of Jimmy Rabbitte of managing a successful Irish working-class soul band, before imploding through jealousy, violence and a sea of giant egos. Spawned from Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel of the same town, this was an idea that was always going to end up being played out on stage. And in March 2017, it came to Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre.
The stage version introduces us to our anti-hero Deco, brilliantly played by Brian Gilligan, drunkenly taking over from the singer at a Christmas party and belting out Proud Mary whilst standing on a table. For those who haven’t seen the film, you wonder when this arrogant and obnoxious gobshite will have his moment of revelation, when he will realise that he needs the band as much as much as they need him. SPOILER ALERT: He doesn’t. He is always an arrogant and obnoxious gobshite hated by the rest of the band.
The wonderfully arrogant Deco, played by Brian Gilligan. Pic: Johan Persson
Andrew Linnie plays the dreamer Jimmy, talking to the audience in much the same way as the film character conducts imaginary interviews with music journalists. I found that a particular strength of this production was the way that the actors shared so many similarities with their film counterparts, often both physically and their mannerisms. Rather than comparing the actors in this show, they quickly became the characters of their own accord. Great casting and great direction. It was a surprise post-show to find out that Jimmy’s “da” – played so wonderfully in the film by Colm Meany – was played by an almost unrecognisable Kevin Kennedy, famously known as Curly from Coronation Street.
Andrew Linnie and Kevin Kennedy – Jimmy and his da. Pic: Johan Persson
Of course, the music is the real star of the show. The actors for the most part are also talented musicians, making it a much more authentic experience for the audience as we accompany them from their first unpolished performance to the slick soul band we all know and love. The transformation does happen VERY quickly, but we’ll assume for the sake of story-telling that this is a long and arduous process…
Deco and the Commitment-ettes… Pic by Johan Persson
Whilst Gilligan steals the show, it is the three “Commitment-ettes” that are standout, with Leah Penston, Christina Tedders and Amy Penston bringing attitude as well as powerful performances. Unlike the film though we don’t get the opportunity to really understand the characters, or why they really need this band. And that’s why the musical numbers are so important to engage the crowd. And in the second half in particular it’s almost a non-stop rollercoaster of Motown and soul. The stage show adds to the already extensive repetoire from the movie soundtrack, and the final 15 minutes are played out as an exclusive show to us, their Birmingham audience. The energy and excitement is palpable, as a theatre audience suddenly becomes a gig crowd; we are almost extras in this scene. Those in the stalls are up dancing in the aisles; from my nosebleed “working-class” seats we’re reduced to clapping, cheering and doing the sit-down shuffle.
It’s a highly entertaining evening, and although the The Commitments leave Birmingham on Saturday, you can catch them around the country until the middle of May – full tour schedule can be found here