Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm nightly plus 2.30pm, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/york
RODDY Doyle has resisted any temptation to update his 1980s’ story of the “hardest-working band in Dublin” for its first tour in five years.
“The vibrancy is still there but so is the tension caused by lack of communication,” he reasons. “For instance, will Deco, the obnoxious lead singer, turn up on time? These days, you’d track him down on your mobile in no time at all. But there wasn’t that option in the late-’80s.”
Back then, he chose Sixties’ music – Motown and Memphis soul – for his young, working-class band because “at the time, it felt timeless”. “Thirty-five years later, I was right,” he says.
What’s more, he went for a “a big band with a brass section and [female] backing vocals, as opposed to three or four young men that was the norm back then”. Right choice number two, as confirmed by a passer-by’s terse reaction to three young men busking Depeche Mode’s 1984 synth anthem Master And Servant: “Sh*te”.
The songs of Otis, Wilson, Marvin, Aretha and co are so familiar, more popular than ever, that we are on first-name terms with their makers. Put a multitude of Motown and Memphis staples in one exuberant show, wrapped inside a Dublin comedy drama full of whimsy, wit, pathos, bluster, booze, banter, too much testosterone and a classic rise and fall arc, and here comes a cracking night out, whatever the year. The craic, writ large and loud as Doyle “captures the rhythm of Dublin kids yapping and teasing and bullying”.
Continuity accompanies this revival in other ways too: from the February 2017 tour visit to the Grand Opera House, Andrew Linnie has stepped up from playing silver-tongued dreamer and putative band manager Jimmy Rabbitte to taking over the director’s chair. Meanwhile, Nigel Pivaro follows another Coronation Street alumnus, Kevin Kennedy, into the role of Jimmy’s Da, forever offering curt advice, slumped over a newspaper in his battered seat beneath the stairs.
Represented by Tim Blazdell’s set design of rundown apartment and garage frontages, The Commitments is set in 1986 in the north side of Dublin, where Jimmy Rabbitte (James Killeen), a visionary manager with the lip of a Malcolm McLaren and the cheek of a Stevo, wishes to build a band on the foundation of his black American soul and blues idols: Redding, Pickett, Gaye and Franklin.
His reasoning: the Irish are the blacks of Europe; Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland; northsiders are the blacks of Dublin, and soul music is the politics of the people; a mantra as familiar as the Choose Life speech in Trainspotting.
The show opens with the first sighting of a Christmas party in York in 2022, as a drunken Deco (Ian McIntosh) bursts into the Regency pub and leaps unsteadily onto a table in his Irish football shirt. This bored factory worker has the sweetest of soul voices – “the voice of God”, as soul brother Joey The Lips will say later – but the attitude of an ass-soul: a Deco heading for a decking.
McIntosh’s incorrigible Deco, rather more of a Celtic dish than Andrew Strong’s Meat Loafian frontman in Alan Parker’s 1991 film, has the swagger and soul fervour of Kevin Rowland in Dexys Midnight Runners’ Projected Passion Revue pomp.
Anything but a Rabbitte in headlights, Jimmy holds auditions with clarity of thought and purpose, the Eighties’ wannabees sent packing in a revolving door of a comical scene, each rapid exit accompanied by a withering word or look from Pivaro’s Jimmy’s Da, eyebrows raised as high as Salvador Dali’s.
The last to join is the mysterious, mystical, scooter-riding soul sage Joey The Lips (a sublime Stuart Reid). Trumpet player to the stars, he may be ageing, but soon Joey will be work his way through the backing singers, Natalie (Eve Kitchingman) pocket dynamo Bernie (Sarah Gardiner) and everyone’s crush, Imelda (Ciara Mackey). Are they a chain of fools? Well, who can resist when Joey tries a little tenderness in grey Dublin town? Oh, and, for the record, their take on Chain Of Fools is fab-u-lous. So too is Think.
Rabbitte strives to spark a Dublin soul revolution with the vim of a Bob Geldof, but such a path to soul salvation can never run smoothly, not when band members are as fractious as Deco and drummer Billy (Ryan Kelly), and scene-stealing bouncer Mickah (Ronnie Yorke) is doing his nut.
Doyle’s narrative is lyrical, colourful, impassioned, fiery, furious and funny, if prone to caricature when painted with broader brush strokes on stage, but like a Mickah punch, The Commitments is a knockout. You may not connect with all the cast of rowdies as there are so many, but you will with the way they play.
Favourite songs this time? Proud Mary, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone and McIntosh’s rendition of It’s A Thin Line Between Love And Hate, a song to define Deco’s antagonistic character.
If you can’t get no satisfaction, then you ain’t got no soul. Make a commitment to see The Commitments. NOW!
Review by Charles Hutchinson