Review: The Commitments. (touring) Theatre Royal Nottingham

In 1997, I first heard the Celtic fused pop beats of The Coors. I considered them the best band in the world. Those beautiful, ethereal, beguiling sisters (and a brother) with their smoky eyes and a knack for a bodhran. I was obsessed. I wanted to sing like them, look like them. I needed to know – was it just exceptional DNA? Were they born that exquisite, or as my mum bluntly put it ‘maybe they grew into their looks, and hopefully you will too’. So, there could be hope for me yet…I researched frantically. Well, I googled. And I quickly learned that their big break were small parts in a BAFTA winning 1991 film, The Commitments (and yes, it was exceptional DNA – bugger it).

Naturally, I grew out of the Coors (as we all did), but without them, I wouldn’t have come across one of my all-time favourite films. I watched it at the right time really, so it struck a nerve. Watching a group of working-class youths come together (with the help of a healthy dose of soul) to find themselves on the verge of something wonderful was inspiring. So, I was dying to see how this translated on stage – turns out, I speak its language! I’m still feeling the same joy and hope, but as someone older now, I feel it more towards the cast itself – the people behind the characters – the raw, unadulterated talent bursting out tonight – truly remarkable.

We meet Jimmy (James Killeen) living deep amongst the rundown Dublin tenements with his hard drinking, hardworking Da (Nigel Pivaro), but he’s also a world away. He’s young, bright, energetic and a natural leader. He’s also obsessed with music, specifically soul music.

When his two friends, buskers, Outspan (James Deegan) and Derek (Guy Freeman), ask for help in starting a band, Jimmy navigates them away from their current arty, experimental, synth noise and sets out to form and manage the best soul band Dublin will ever deliver. As more members are established, Jimmy’s passion for music infects the band instantly, but with killer harmonies doesn’t necessarily bring a harmonious atmosphere – especially when you consider the hugely gifted but egocentric lead singer, Deco.

Author, Roddy Doyle, has adapted his 1987 novel The Commitments for both screen and stage now. This dynamic production is directed by Andrew Linnie and although soul is very much the dish of the day, it’s that captured essence of youth that’s sweeping through the theatre right now – hope, angst, heart and possibilities – this is intuitive direction at its best.

Perhaps the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they are in the film or book, but what’s unique about watching this performance is how much context is being conveyed to us right at the start, allowing for the many musical performances to enjoy the spotlight without it feeling like they’ve just been dumped on us. The songs happen for a reason; bursting with glorious voices and shoulder shaking renditions of soul masterpieces – my god, do you need to hear this lot sing.

Straight away we meet the cast enjoying a Christmas drinking session outside their local working men’s pub ‘The Regency’. Immediately struck by the authenticity created by set designer Tim Blazdells and costume (Alice Lessings) the cast erupt into the feel good Nutbush City Limits. Everything is executed with love and dedication; utmost respect to Alan Williams, Musical Supervisor and Arranger and all the musicians here tonight.

I feel something wash over the audience now like a Mexican wave – it’s that collective feeling where everyone knows they’re about to have a fantastic night. The woman in front of me asks her partner ‘are they miming?’ Nope. They’re just that good.

All actors excel in their roles, and I sense a genuine affection for each other behind the scenes to be able to perform like this.

James Killeen’s portrayal as manager/lynchpin Jimmy is funny, sincere, and confident. Ian McIntosh has a certain Liam Gallagher panache to his Deco – arrogant, careless, and lazy, but there’s no denying it, the man just needs to sigh and the notes pour out like the best pint of Guinness you’ve ever had. Honest, natural funk and soul – with a sharp shot of whiskey on the side.

The three girls, Imelda (Ciara Mackay) Natalie (Eve Kitchingman) & Bernie (Sarah Gardiner) are perhaps the anchor of every performance – sublime voices – but its Gardiner that’s standing out for me; a genuine pocket rocket, she’s a force of spirit and sparkle.

Admittedly, I feel everything dissipating quite quickly towards the end; suddenly it’s all over and I feel a bit cheated. But fear not, everyone, I needn’t have worried because…well, see it for yourself.

And I do encourage you to see this show, if only to witness what a great cast and crew can accomplish. Its popularity is well deserved, and I’m thrilled to have a seat.

The Commitments is playing until 8th April. Do it for the soul!

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