THEATRE Review: The Commitments – Palace Theatre, Manchester  

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Roddy Doyle’s smash hit novel-cum-movie hits the road in its first UK tour, following a couple of years at London’s Palace Theatre. Re-directed for the road by Caroline J Ranger, it’s a pretty disappointing evening overall.

For the uninitiated, the loose plot follows Dublin music obsessive Jimmy Rabbitte (Andrew Linnie) as he tries to put together a world-class soul group. Populated entirely by white working class kids struggling against a backdrop of Thatcherite grime and unemployment.

This is, in theory, the perfect sort of musical for those students who profess to hate musicals. The songs are organic, and a raft of genuine soul masterpieces (Heard It Through The Grapevine, Proud Mary, Knock On Wood, Try A Little Tenderness, etc) are given precision performances by the hugely talented ensemble cast. These bits are the undoubted highlight, and Ben Morris as bolshy lead singer Deco is a spirited live wire at the front of the titular group. However, the pace flags as soon as dialogue scenes take centre stage. In a rush to get to the soul standards, the book (and the direction) glosses over nuance, and the wit, profanity and punch of Roddy Doyle’s characters struggle to emerge.

Is it worth seeing? Yes, provided you’re aware it’s a peacock-chested tribute to the soul greats, with pretty thin connective tissue. A huge plus – particularly from a student perspective – is Soutra Gilmour’s set and costumes. A cunning mix of sliding panels and trucks, they make light work of the deluge of scene changes, and also root the action specifically in a time and a place. Rather than going for a generic “ra-ra skirts and legwarmers” look, the costumes hint at the grim reality of daily life that these kids are desperate to escape.

Whilst I found it pretty slim pickings, the capacity audience loved it, and the triumphant climatic performance of Try a Little Tenderness was truly electrifying.

Review by Matthew Nichols