The National Theatre’s new production of The Plough and the Stars marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, a major event in Irish history that I’m ashamed to say I don’t know very much about. Given its absence in most English curriculum history lessons, I wonder how many of last night’s audience were that well-informed either (at least before they’d read the programme notes).
Luckily Sean O’Casey’s play doesn’t require you to know too much historical detail. It’s not a documentary of the Rising, but a character study of ordinary Dubliners: the patchwork of wit, humour, tragedy, eccentricity and courage that became the backdrop for bloodshed and the historical catalyst for Troubles to follow.
The Commitments is not like any other musical I’ve seen on the West End. This is no glitzy and glamorous, smooth and slick, sweet and sugary show: this is raucous and joyous, and more like a musical/gig hybrid. It has received a mixed reaction from the critics since it landed at the West End’s Palace Theatre in September, but I think it really depends on what you’re looking for from an evening at the theatre. It may not have the intensity or ‘dramatic’ impact of Les Miserables, or the show-stopping dance routines of Top Hat and Anything Goes; the plot itself doesn’t exactly go very far – but it had every single member of the audience, even those in the rather scarily high balcony seats, on their feet. And it’s hard to argue with that.
The show is of course based on Roddy Doyle’s best-selling 1987 novel, and the follow-up 1991 hit film, about a group of Irish musicians attempting to find success as a soul group in the late 1980s. Although Doyle originally rejected offers of a musical adaptation, the author has ended up fully involved in the project after giving up on the search for a writer, and penning the script himself. In this adaptation there is plenty of the book’s comedy and less of the film’s focus on the condition of Dublin’s inner city: it’s mentioned, but not really dwelt upon. What remains is the strong sense of Irish pride, and protagonist Jimmy’s burning desire to create Dublin’s very own soul music; and with the majority of the cast hailing from Ireland, this shines through as being of genuine importance within the show.
Making his West End début, Denis Grindel impresses as band founder and manager Jimmy Rabbitte: in truth, he is the only member of the cast who is able to give a stellar performance without relying on the music to back him up, and he gets stuck into the role with plenty of gusto. His one musical number, ‘Mr Pitiful’, is sweet but a little forgettable – but then the character himself admits he was never cut out to be a singer, and it’s tough to compete with the fantastic vocals elsewhere in the show. And really, Grindel’s performance is enough without it, as he throws his energy into invigorating and organising his sometimes frustrating mish-mash of a soul band.
The musical numbers are a playlist of the best soul numbers around, covering everyone from The Rolling Stones to Stevie Wonder, from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin. Yet it manages to be more than just another jukebox musical in the way it gives the hits a new life, with raw energy and freshness. It’s when the band breaks into these numbers that the show explodes from good to great, led by a rock-star-esque performance by Killian Donnelly. As lead singer Deco, he’s the epitome of the character that you love to hate: obnoxious, irritating, self-centred – and brilliant. There’s no disputing he’s got star quality, as his powerful voice fills the lofty heights of the Palace auditorium with electrifying effect.
The Commitment-ettes are not to be outdone, and Bernie (Jessica Cervi), Natalie (Natalie Hope) and resident heart-breaker Imelda (Sarah O’Connor) quickly progress from their first tentative harmonies into truly soulful performances, doing a impressive job with Aretha Franklin numbers such as ‘Think’. Elsewhere Ben Fox is a great addition to the cast as trumpeter Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan, who is constantly surprising as much for his romancing of the women as for his history of collaborations with the greatest soul artists of the 20th century. That trumpet on ‘All You Need Is Love’? Yep, in Doyle’s version of the history of pop music, that was him. Mention must also go to Joe Woolmer as bouncer-turned-drummer Mickah, who provides much comedy in his over-eager attempts to first protect, and subsequently be part of, the increasingly popular band.
There’s no doubting that Donnelly steals the show however, particularly in the raucous, vivacious finale; as ‘Uptight’, ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ ring around the auditorium, he carries the audience with him effortlessly, and the atmosphere is more like that of a rowdy arena than a historic theatre. So if you’re looking for a more traditional musical, this probably isn’t for you. Being totally honest, not a lot actually happens in terms of plot and character development… but does that matter? I think The Commitments more than gets away with it for the sheer amount of joy it musters – impressive in a show with this many expletives and punch-ups. Unexpectedly, watching The Commitments has made me less keen to go along to Once, just down the road at the Phoenix Theatre. I’m not sure its charm will satisfy in the face of this rip-roaring night of soul that left me buzzing long after ‘Mustang Sally’ had (finally) stopped ringing in my ears.
The Irish are rightly proud of their strong literary and dramatic tradition – wherever you go in Dublin, allusions to Joyce, Beckett, Wilde and Shaw abound. So the prospect of some new Irish writing was an irresistible one for a visiting theatre-lover, as director Tom Creed and playwright Gary Duggan make their Abbey Theatre debuts as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Shibari is an odd piece full of dichotomies: its Love Actually-style interlinking of different lives has become conventional, yet its progression is unexpected; while some scenes possess a power and thoughtfulness, others feel rather dead and uninspiring; and whilst some performances entertain and even electrify, one or two would not merit praise in the most ordinary of student productions. With such a mixed reaction, the piece divided my party and left me a little confused – and more than a little frustrated every time a weak point interrupted an intriguing or entertaining element.Read More »