Palace Theatre, London
Summary: Exuberant performances let down but chaotic direction and loose script
So the West End’s love affair with books or films being turned in to musicals continues. With The Commitments we have a new musical based on the Alan Parker film which, in turn, is based on Roddy Doyle’s classic novel. Both the film and the book have achieved rave reviews and are favourites amongst film buffs and the literati respectively. So it is with great anticipation that the stage musical arrives, especially as the original author (Doyle) is closely involved with this production.
For those unaware of the story, The Commitments is the story of a group of disaffected young Dubliners who, guided by a young political idealist, set up a band (the Commitments) to bring soul music to the working classes of Ireland. With a variety of social, economic and interpersonal baggage, this group of musically limited misfits create a band that, against all odds, performs well and wins local acclaim. However, during this process personal and interpersonal problems sees the band dissolve as quickly as they came together.
The story is a great vehicle for some of the best soul music produced and it intertwines that with a peek into life in Ireland in the early 80’s and the ideology (and sexual frustration) of its youth. Though, where the book and film succeed, the play fails. The main failing is that it’s too chaotic – too much going on in such a small timeframe and space. Doyle’s text is witty and energetically written but without the film’s ability of fast cuts and close-up shots, the stage play feels jumbled mess.
At times, the play has a mass of people on the main stage, people on ‘upper levels’, in various ‘rooms’ all doing something and as a viewer, you’ve no idea where to look or, worse, know who’ saying what to whom. Worse still, is that with limited understanding of any of the character’s backstories, they appear as self indulgent and egotistical (especially the band’s lead singer). With some basic understanding of these characters, that’s fine, but in this play all this dos is bring up resentment to each of them to the point hat you don’t care, and above all, actually dislike them.
This disengagement with the characters destroys the overall play. In disliking the characters, you’ve no emotional interest in them so when they succeed or, ultimately fail, you don’t care. And in not caring, you’re left frustrated and ultimately bored by the overall experience.
On the plus side, the set design is a marvel; with moving structures that take the audience from street to pub to garage to homes seamlessly. The cast, in the main, are very good – delivering both music and acting with immense vigour and energy. However the chaotic direction and unstructured script detract from all this to the point that as the climactic ‘encore’ comes along (a rousing sing-song of some great soul tracks), you’re left looking for the easiest and quickest way out.