REVIEW: The Commitments, Palace Theatre. ✭✭✭

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
The Commitments at The Palace Theatre

The Commitments
Palace Theatre
7 October 2013
3 Stars

The West End is about to be awash with new musicals and tomorrow Jamie Lloyd’s production of Roddy Doyle’s musical adaptation of his book and film, The Committments, opens at the Palace Theatre where it is likely to play for a very long time judging by the reaction of the enthusiastic clapping and dancing-in-the-aisles multi-generational audience at tonight’s performance.

It is chock full of great musical classics and extremely well sung and performed. Indeed, the vocal work of Killian Donnelly as the lewd lout Deco is assured, spectacular and riveting: a true tour-de-force.

Soutra Gilmour provides yet another set for a current London production and this one is just as excellent and creative as her other work – she is a very gifted designer capable of achieving much with little.

Lloyd is an astonishing director with a range and taste palette which is remarkable – it is a rare day when he cannot illuminate, freshen or invigorate a work – and so it seems here. The pace never lags, the scenes are colourful and stuffed with detail and interest and you are in no doubt that the music is the focal point of the evening.

There is one odd mis-step with ensemble members coming into the auditorium to awkwardly emulate the original audience to which the raggle-taggle band first played, but otherwise it is near faultlessly directed and composed as a piece of theatre.

Lloyd always gets excellent work out of the people he casts but it is not always the case that his casting is the most acute or appropriate. Here, the entire piece is carried by the narrator, Jimmy, and the part requires a charismatic and truly gifted and versatile actor. Denis Grindel, making his West End debut, is pretty enough and winning in a vanilla kind of way, but he does not have the stagecraft, the suppleness or the dexterity of technique necessary to pull off this central pivotal role.

In Grindel’s hands, you want to love Jimmy because he is so nice; but the character is not nice – he is driven, passionate, naive, ambitious and wonderful. If a gifted actor (say Harry Melling or Max Bennett) had played this part, the entire piece might sizzle in a way it does not, can not with Grindel. This is not to say he is bad, he isn’t; he just is not really right and trying his hardest cannot change that.

It is all summed up in the moment when the character sings Mr Pitiful – Grindel can sing and it takes a real actor to hide that ability in a moment of self-realisation where the character laments his inability to perform.

There is a spectacular head-butt and some fun with rain which is worth the ticket price alone and many of the characters have a moment in the spotlight which is rewarding – apart from a couple of apparently deliberately bad caricatures, the standard of the ensemble is very very high.

The central problem lies with the book – Doyle does not let the piece breathe so that the back-stories or in many cases even the personalities of the various members of the band are clear. It ought not be hard to sketch them out in broad brushstrokes, but the preference here seems to have been to reach for a smudge, a suggestion of a backstory, presumably relying upon knowledge of the very successful film to fill in blanks or add a handle of familiarity.

But an expert on the film informs me that the musical version takes a very different tack from the film and does not try to be a faithful reproduction or to explain the story of the band along similar lines. So the smudge effect seems deliberate on the part of the author – which, to say the least, is odd.

The result is that there are many gifted singers and dancers on stage (the entire ensemble rocks big time) and, apart from the vaguest of whiffs of characterisation, one has no idea why they are there, how they came to be there or why they want to be there.

But as the making of the music is the profound centre of this confection, and the bulk of the audience seem not to care, it seems curmudgeonly to wonder why character and textual clarity is deemed unimportant by Doyle.

But it’s not.

And that is the reason why the memory of this particularly well directed and performed musical treat will always be of a smudge, of a curious incident of a night with the Commitments, of a musical work that lacked commitment from its author but not it’s cast or director. It does not strike one as a musical that would improve on second or third viewings, at least with the current cast. Even with an experienced and versatile actor as Jimmy, while that role would be better, the disparity between that character and the rest would be even greater – which may, indeed, be the key to Grindel’s casting.

It is a jaunty evening of great singing and the odd laugh – but you do not need to know either the book or the film to know that this could have been an infinitely better musical if the book had been written by someone with a better understanding of musical theatre. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has nothing to worry about from this new resident at the Palace.

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