The new stage musical of Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel The Commitments swaggers into the West End like a drunk at a tea party looking for a punch-up. It’s a big budget show but Jamie Lloyd’s production is less interested in teeth, tits and taps than two-finger salutes and soul. Set in a grubby estate in Dublin, the play tells the tale of working class hero Jimmy Rabbitte (winningly played by newcomer Denis Grindel) as he puts together a band that can bring “the people’s music to the people”. It’s not much of a story but then this feels like partly the point, the slightness a deliberate tonic to the overblown emotional roller-coasters you get strapped into every three seconds on The X-Factor.
In truth, The Commitments is barely even a musical with the first half scraping together only the odd beginnings and ends of classic soul songs: I Heard It Through the Grapevine, for example, is sung through a mouthful of chips. It’s in this stubborn refusal to conform to the rules of the West End juke-box musical that the show’s charm lies. It’s not desperate to please a middle-brow, middle-class audience and cares more about its characters than creating spectacle for spectacle’s sake. As a result it’s one of the few musicals around at the moment that doesn’t leave a saccharine after-taste.
The ‘who-gives-a-shite’ spirit is personified in the superb performance of Killian Donnelly as the band’s obnoxious lead singer Deco. After he sings one particularly sweet a cappella verse Deco mocks the applauding audience by telling them he already knows he is ‘brilliant’. It’s not too long after this that he gets the biggest cheer of the night – by being nutted by Micah the skinhead (a hilarious bird-like character brought to glorious life by Joe Woolmer). Everyone in the cast and all the musicians on and off stage turn it up to eleven making it hard to resist this raucous rambling show.
The Commitments is on at the Palace Theatre until January 2014. Tickets £10-£67.50. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary press ticket.