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Theatre Review: The Commitments at Nottingham Theatre Royal

10 November 16 words: Dom Henry

The production is in town on the Nottingham leg of their UK tour, fresh from a two-year West End run. This musical adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s 1986 book and successful film follows Jimmy Rabbitte, a young working class Dubliner yearning to bring some life and music to his grey and downtrodden corner of eighties Dublin.

photo: Johan Persson

Jimmy (played energetically by Andrew Linnie) seeks his escape from dreary working life through managing a band, but not the likes of period performers like Boy George and Soft Cell. He dreams of American Soul, inspired by the music of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and James Brown.  With a head full of classic vinyl numbers, he sets forth as fast-talking music promoter, rounding up a motley crew of musicians and unlikely singing talent who share his musical passion (or the hope of a rock and roll lifestyle) to form The Commitments.  In a fast-paced whirl of blarney, spilt Guiness and increasingly lively covers, the show charts their raucous journey through auditions, jam sessions, bars, handful of performances and eventual implosion.

The cast had to work hard to win over an audience tetchy from a 35-minute technical delay, but after a somewhat slow start we quickly began to settle into Doyle’s rain-soaked streets and nicotine-stained front rooms of eighties, working-class Dublin. From the off, the pace was fast and fecking shouty, as Jimmy tears about town to herd the talent and preach his soul gospel.

The sizable cast is a strong one, with standout performances in the key roles. Deco (Brian Gilligan) is a sensitive office worker-turned-lead singer and increasingly unlikeable diva. His physical performance and outstanding voice making him shine in even the most crowded bar scenes. The other three principal singing roles were the bands ‘backup’ singers. Natalie (Amy Penston), Imelda (Leah Penston), and the wonderful Bernie (Christina Tedders).  Three very different ladies, whose characters provided much of the continuity play between scenes.

While you’ve got to love the increasingly lively series of soul numbers being belted out, the balance between music and character stories definitely tilted in favour of the classic score. With toe-tapping favourites such as I Heard Through the Grape Vine, Knock on Wood and You Keep Me Hanging On, the result was a rushed feel to proceedings, with unsatisfyingly brief insights into the characters among the general mayhem jammed in between songs. I found myself sometimes wondering what the feck was going on.

Plot issues aside, you couldn’t fault the cast performances. The music was first rate, particularly in the more polished and tune-heavy second half. I have to be honest that arguably my favourite performance was from the bands ‘security’, manic skinhead Mickah (Sam Fordham). His wonderfully menacing, spittle-edged mania ultimately winning us over, when you realise he just wants to be a part of something.

The performance ended with an encore after three truly great numbers (including Mustang Sally of course) that had a good proportion of the full house up on their feet. If you have a wodge of soul in your music collection this is well worth a look.

The Commitments plays at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal until Saturday 12 November 2016.

 

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