The Commitments: a soul survivor on f***ing stage

10 Oct

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It’s easy to see why plays should become films: they can, in the wrong hands, fall into the trap of being “stagey”, but the dialogue is necessarily strong and the few location changes make them cheap to film. It’s less easy to see, artistically as opposed to commercially, why so many plays, particularly musicals, are being made out of films.

Billy Elliott is my all-time favourite honourable exception: moving as a film, it is absolute genius as a musical. The dance is integral to the storyline, natch, Elton John’s melodies are as catchy as ever, and the miner’s strike politics come through even louder and clearer.

I had similarly high hopes for The Commitments, which Roddy Doyle has finally adapted for the stage after 20 years of being asked, and they are nearly fulfilled. Here, the music is integral to the story: man puts together 11-piece band to bring soul to Dublin. And Roddy Doyle’s famously caustic wit remains intact; indeed The Commitments has more f***s on its way to musical success than Madonna.

“And, And, exclamation mark And!” says one youth, explaining his band name. “F***, f***, exclamation mark f***!” comes the reply. There is a hilarious audition sequence in which a succession of no-hopers enter, sing one line – eg “Don’t You Want Me Baby?” – and are booted out. The most succinct: “Re-lax!” “F*** Off!”

It’s often been said that f*** is the most versatile word in the English language, and that’s never been better demonstrated than here. Doyle even drops the “C” bomb within the first ten minutes: “What’s the soup like?” “C***ish.” It’s like an inoculation: an initial barrage to inure the audience so that Doyle can later drop even the N-word with impunity. “Do you not get it, lads?” says band leader Jimmy Rabitte in the original 1991 film, in a key speech about the power of soul. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” The stage version substitutes the N-word instead. Interesting to see how that will go down in future, though there were scant few black faces in the audience to object.

Overall, I was surprised by how easily the well-heeled West Enders adjusted to the f***s sprinkled around the dialogue like a salty, peppery seasoning. But that begs the question: where’s the meat?

There are good performances all round, but no great ones (special mention though to the mad-bastid skinhead security guard, and to the heavenly voice of the lead singer whose ego threatens to break up the band). There is a love rivalry, but it never really hurts. Most unforgivably, right at the end (without giving too much away) when all seems lost… everything’s suddenly fine again, as though the producers had suddenly cut 20 minutes from the climax.

Ah well. It’s no Billy Elliott, but with several laugh-out-loud moments, some dynamic staging and blistering musical numbers, The Commitments still delivers a f***ing good time.

The Commitments is on at the Palace Theatre, London

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