★★★ | Set in Dublin in 1986, The Commitments charts the rise and fall of an unlikely group of misfit musicians who are brought together by young music entrepreneur Jimmy Rabbitte. The hardest working soul band in Dublin start out as friends and skirt on the edge of greatness, but as egos clash, band members squabble, fights break out and passions get in the way, the backstage harmony couldn’t be more different from the harmonies on stage.
Based on the novel by Roddy Doyle and building on the success of the 1991 film, The Commitments is a story of empowerment through music and of the hopes and aspirations of a group of youngsters trying to break away from the mid-eighties urban decay and from their dead end lives. Adapted for the stage by Doyle himself, the show is on tour after a successful run in the West End; and with over 20 soul classics in the show, including “Mustang Sally”, “River Deep, Mountain High”, “Mr Pitiful” and “Try a Little Tenderness”, it’s a production that really does have soul music at its heart.
“There is a story behind every song”, says Jimmy Rabbitt at one of the band’s rehearsals, but ironically this adaptation is fairly light on both plot and social commentary. The narrative skims the surface of the story of the band’s rise to the top and limits the development of the characters in exchange for lively performances of the songs that the audience clearly came to hear. The show, wisely, keeps the ballads to an absolute minimum, and instead employs a set-list of upbeat numbers, blasting open the show with an upbeat rendition of “Proud Mary” and maintaining the energy levels cranked up throughout the duration.
There is an air of organised chaos to the proceedings, with enough raucous energy to help cover the slightly cumbersome scenery changes, and to keep the pace as enthusiastic as the young cast. There is plenty to like about those on stage. Andrew Linnie’s optimistic and happy-go-lucky portrayal of Jimmy Rabbitte is easy to warm to, whilst Brian Gilligan belts out the songs with aplomb as lead singer, Deco. As an ensemble, the cast really do give it their all, in a fusion of talented musicians and soulful singers who are well cast and who, unlike the fictional band, work well together, and it is during those 20 or so musical numbers scattered over the show’s two hour duration where the show really comes alive.
Bringing the audience to its feet in the finale with a mini-concert of some soul standards, the music is infectious and the definite strength of the production. There is little effort to weave the songs into the narrative; but quite frankly, this doesn’t matter when the songbook is so toe-tappingly good.
The Commitments is currently on national tour until April 2017 and details can be found at www.thecommitmentsontour.co.uk . The show was reviewed at Sheffield Theatres, who will soon be launching their new musical Everyone’s Talking About Jamie (www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/everybodystalking-jamie)