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Review: The Commitments at Liverpool Empire ***1/2

More than 30 years after he first created it, Roddy Doyle’s tale of a band rising from the grimy streets of Dublin’s North Side, burning briefly and brightly and then imploding in spectacular fashion remains a firm crowd-pleaser.

Originally a book penned by the then teacher during school holidays, followed by a cult film – one I suspect the vast majority of those of us in the Empire audience recall fondly from its release, 10 years ago The Commitments made the jump from page and screen to stage.

The musical came to the Empire in 2017, and now it’s back with the ‘hardest working band in the world’ brought colourfully to life in all its bickering glory by a cast of equally hard-working young actor-musicians.

It’s the mid-1980s and Jimmy Rabbitte (James Killeen), who dreams of putting together a band to deliver good, honest soul to the working people of Dublin, spies his opportunity when gormless – but harmless – duo Outspan (Michael Mahony) and Derek (Guy Freeman) turn up on his doorstep having defected from tragic synth pop combo And And And.

Jimmy has very decided views on music (Liverpool doesn’t fare too well, the Beatles being dismissed as s***e and 'Frankie Goes to Me A**e' as c**p), and a vision for the band he puts together Svengali like – not from the flotsam and jetsam who audition at the front door – but from random people he knows or happens upon.

They include insufferable slob, but talented singer, Deco (James Deegan on press night), and a trio of ‘Commitmentettes’ led by the much-fancied Imelda Quirke (Ciara Mackey).

Meanwhile Joey ‘the Lips’ Fagan (Stuart Reid, one of the early-2000s cohort of LIPA graduates) materialises as the band’s mysterious sage and unlikely lothario – putting as he does the ‘oul’ into soul.

And Nigel Pivaro, erstwhile Corrie bad boy Terry Duckworth, is shambolically likeable as Jimmy’s irascible, cardie-wearing, Elvis-loving dad.

Above: Nigel Pivaro as Da and James Killeen as Jimmy. Top: The Commitments. Photos by Ellie Kurttz

Doyle’s story mines an enjoyably rich vein of dark, edgy humour although perhaps inevitably this feels a somewhat more larky and colourful rendering of the source material than the grittier 1991 film.

Most of the plot unfolds in the first half which is made up of a series of short scenes which range from enjoyably entertaining to strangely stilted. Overall they lack the snap, crackle and pop they really need to leap off the stage and grab the auditorium by the throat.

Where the show really comes alive is when the talking stops and the music starts, with the cast – buoyed by a quintet of additional musicians tucked out of view – belting out some fierce renditions of great tunes from Think to Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Chain of Fools and I’m a Midnight Mover.

They’re a talented bunch and once the story has the ‘band’ getting into its groove they definitely deliver the goods.

Still, Commitments fans will have to wait until an extended encore for some of the signature numbers, Mustang Sally among them. But with the current spotlight on unwanted audience ‘participation’ at stage musicals it’s a canny decision to officially turn the crowd loose on their most-loved tunes.


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