The Commitments – Edinburgh Playhouse

Book by Roddy Doyle

Directed by Andrew Linnie

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Music moves between everything in a way no other form of expression manages.

And though cultures, communities, and generations have a ‘sound’ which speaks to them but possesses a latent ability to cross boundaries: looking around the Edinburgh Playhouse offers a slice of this. This evening’s performance of The Commitments undoubtedly speaks for a generation, but to see a wave of younger audiences engaging offers the hope of a tremendous night ahead.

The story of a bunch of working-class young adults coming together to form a soul band, in the Northside of Dublin, is one of novelist and dramatist Roddy Doyle’s most synonymous works. And the film adaptation in 1991 was a BAFTA-winning is perhaps one of the more defining cult films which shaped an Irish and Scottish generation’s taste in music, perspective, and style. 

Instantly recognisable, Andrew Linnie’s production follows the same notes of the film and Doyle’s novel but takes significant deviations the further we move into the show. Still seeking to form a band of working-class musicians, Jimmy Rabbitte is the narrator of sorts for The Commitments, played with charisma by James Killeen.

The diegetic production turns its back to the expectant form of a jukebox musical – and thankfully so. Emotion (what little there is) comes from character interaction and performance, not utilising the score as a cheap shortcut. It’s a double-edged blade, where the music has the freedom to spread itself naturally and communicate with the audiences, it lays the hands of story and character at the hands of direction and the production’s watery plot contrivances.

Elements of the narrative change for the stage, and characters take the place of others in peculiar adaptation choices where the story elements shift between them. It all makes for the production’s drawback – its severe lack of depth in plot structure and almost zero-character development. Suffering most are the likes of Ciara Mackey and Eve Kitchingman who deliver superbly rounded vocals and rich chemistry with some of the cast but have such little impact on the story. 

Where Doyle painstakingly makes it clear not to homogenise the experiences of Irish exploitation with that of African Americans in his book, drawing on the irony of The Commitment’s adoration of soul music, this stage show doesn’t make quite as clear a commitment. Linnie’s direction drops the comprehension a little: far from offensive, it struggles to draw and dismiss the parallels and nuances.

The focus here is the music, the appropriation of soul music by these lads feeling discriminated against, and identifying a sound and voice that rings familiar, but also different. There’s still a cleverness in the stage adaptation, carried with James Killeen’s performance as Jimmy, but there was a wealth more potential in the production’s second act which shuffles off quickly to make way for the twenty-minute finale. It’s a belter of a finale but makes for an exceptionally rushed conclusion. 

Now, we’re not ones to agree with wolf whistles, but the reaction to Ian McIntosh’s spectacular performance as Deco is deserving of the visceral and audible praise they received on opening night. McIntosh captures the disillusioned man, the shattered ideas but persistent hopes Deco has. And vocally, McIntosh has no concerns about leading the crowd and pushing the rest of the cast to match their level of performance.

Tim Blazdell carries over the ramshackle nature of the tenements and worn-down bars of Doyle’s book. Though making for a flat set piece, the design is practical for the production, and well—crafted enough to offer a depth of dimension and level for the cast to play around. The comedy sits well on stage, Ronnie Yorke’s brutish yet endearing Mickah making full use of the larger-than-life presence they have been gifted in direction.

Gritty, noisy, utterly foul-mouthed with rich Irish sentiment and pungent attitude – the cinematic interpretation of the film speaks for a generation. Unfortunately, the stage performance comes over as a slice of the greatest hits. The Commitments here have lost some of their bite, their nerve. But here’s the thing: vocally and instrumentally, The Commitments is one of the finest touring pieces across the UK in recent months. The live performance instrumentals and harmonised cast performances cannot be faulted for talent and determination, with the whole cast rallying the Edinburgh audiences. Go for the music, stay for the memories, but don’t expect the full shebang.

A Slice of the Greatest Hits

The Commitments runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until December 3rd.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Ellie Kurttz Goh

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