Life and soul in Dublin. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

The Commitments

Birmingham Hippodrome


Hello Birmingham. Put yers hands together for the hardest working band in Dublin singing the people’s music, let’s hear it for The Commitments!

The boys, and let’s not forget The Commitmentettes, have come a long way since Roddy Doyle’s 1987 self-published novel about a scruffy, disparate set of unemployed, working class lads and lasses turned into the finest soul band Dublin had ever seen. A meteoric rise, and spectacular fall in two hours of classics of the music of the working classes – soul.

It’s all down to Jimmy Rabbitte, who puts together his dream band to play his kind of music, working class music about dignity and . . . well, sex. James Killeen brings an air of authenticity to the role, being a born and bred Dubliner and has a nice line in asides and persuasion as he keeps his band members from killing each other – bon homie not exactly a band strong point.

Jimmy’s da, is nearer to home though with Nigel Pivaro, perhaps best known as Terry Duckworth from Coronation Street, and perhaps less well known as a qualified journalist – an old school, proper hack, an NCTJ graduate.

The band’s singer is Deco, played by Ben Morris, another Dubliner on home turf. Deco is . . . let’s just say his mother is the only one who might like him, and even that is only a remote possibility. He is self-centred, selfish, dismissive of everyone in the band and pretty much everyone loathes him. His one redeeming feature is he can sing soul like no one else in the band or indeed, if Jimmy is to be believed, Dublin.

And Morris does manage to provide a Deco who can give Dublin’s music scene a sort of cross between James Brown and Jake Blues. The boy might be a pig no one can stand, but he can really belt out a number, he can even try a little tenderness when needed.

da and son

Nigel Pivaro as Da and James Killeen as his son Jimmy

Then there is the band itself with Michael Mahony as Outspan, on lead guitar, Guy Freeman as Derek on bass, Dublin born Ryan Kelly as Billy on drums, until he walks out frightened he will kill Deco if he stays any longer – and he isn’t joking.

We have Limerick born Stephen O’Riain as the medical student James on keys and Stuart Reid arrives as the auld fella, Joey the lips Fagan on trumpet, who claims to have played with everybody from the Beatles to Booker T.

Then there is Connor Litten as Dean on sax, who has a love of Charlie Parker and is not sure if he wants to play soul, R&B or, whisper it quietly, jazz. It’s a genre frowned upon almost as the devil’s work by Joey, who sees jazz as music that is . . . intellectual!

Joey’s taste being more basic, perhaps illustrated as he slowly works his way through The Commitmentettes.

Ah, The Committmentettes - short and snappy name there, Jimmy – Ciara Mackey as Imelda, Eve Kitchingman as Natalie and Sarah Gardiner as Bernie. The girls are far more than eye candy backing singers though and give us some great soul hits . . . when the big I am Deco is not around.

And finally there is Ronnie Yorke as local psychopath Mickah, hired as security, although the band probably needed a second heavy to protect them from him. When drummer Billy walks out though, who steps in to take the sticks – no one daring to stop him – but Mickah, who, you suspect, is a graduate of the Keith Moon school of percussionists.

The Commitmentettes

 Stephen O'Riain as James, left, Eve Kitchingman as Natalie, Ciara Mackey as Imelda, Sarah Gardiner as Bernie and Guy Freeman as Derek

There are more than 20 hits featured in the musical with classics such as Knock on wood, What Becomes of The Broken Hearted, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Reach Out I’ll be There, Papa was a Rolling Stone, Mustang Sally, River Deep, Mountain High, the quieter Otis Redding hit Mr Pitiful and the bittersweet It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate and, this is The Commitments after all, a finale with what has become their anthem, Try a little Tenderness.

You also get snatches of a couple of dozen other songs as Jimmy auditions locals but we’ll ignore them, just as Jimmy did. On the face of it this could be a jukebox musical, but there is a valid distinction, one made by Doyle himself, who wrote the novel, co-wrote the 1991 film screenplay and finally the book of the musical.

This is about a working class, unknown soul band, performing standard, from a dirt-poor part of Dublin, who come and go in an evening, not some famous band singing their way up in a bio job, or characters expressing emotion shoehorned into a story.

If there is a fault it is perhaps when Jimmy puts the band together it is perhaps too good, after all this is an amateur band, a couple of buskers, a sax player who got his alto horn off an uncle who had lost a lung, a backing singer with two mates who had never sung before and a drummer with no drums. Yet first rehearsal they were already sounding like a well-rehearsed unit.

But who cares, the audience certainly didn’t, they were there for a good time, the craic, and the cast were up for giving it to them. Alan Parker’s cult film was darker, had more depth, more social comment, but the musical dispensed with all that, this is a celebration of soul, of Motown, of wall of sound, of the golden age of 60’s pop from Rolling Stones to Jimmy Ruffin, The Four Tops to Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye . . .

All sung and played with style by the cast – after all they are a band – augmented by five offstage musicians when needed under musical director Adam Smith. The original story is still there but scaled back. Amid the music there is fun, some great lines, Irish humour and brilliant one liners after a couple of Jimmy’s mates arrive bemoaning music after leaving a tenth rate busking trio setting the story in motion.


Jimmy and Imelda at least find a happy ending . . . maybe

They become being Jimmy’s seed for a dream of a band to set Dublin alight, and not just any band but a working class band playing working class music i.e. soul.

A community hall gig, after bingo was cancelled, a couple of bookings at seedy clubs and the 10 strong band was about to hit the big time . . . hit being the key word here, punches mainly, as what was heading up came crashing down in a committed break up. Still at least Jimmy gets something out of it . . .

Tim Blazdell’s set is a functional affair with a faceless block of flats at the rear with garages below where one reveals a bar a second Jimmy’s roll out home and a third the garage for the band’s drumkit, clever, drab and flexible.

Jason Taylor’s lighting does the job splendidly while Alice Lessing’s costumes never looked out of place, so much so they blended right in without being noticed – which is not a criticism but a compliment.

It’s a show bringing the music from my generation to a new audience, with more feel good than you can shake a shillelagh at. Whether you are Irish or not, your eyes and everything else will be smiling all the way home, with a soul hit parade ringing around your brain for days. Directed by Andrew Linnie, The Commitments will be replacing the bingo at the Hippodrome to 29-04-23

Roger Clarke


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