THE Commitments are back on the road in a hit-laden celebration of the bonding powers of soul music, and no-one could be more delighted than creator Roddy Doyle.
“The original stage show in 2013 was a brilliant experience from my point of view,” says the Irish writer. “It stayed in the West End for over two years, then it went on a successful tour.”
Five years on, The Commitments will be touring Britain and Ireland from late-September to July 2023. Next stop: Grand Opera House, York, from November 7 to 12.
Nigel Pivaro, forever associated with playing lovable rogue Terry Duckworth in Coronation Street from 1983 to 2012, takes the pivotal role of Da, Jimmy Rabbitte’s father, while Andrew Linnie, sax player Dean in the original West End production and later Jimmy Rabbitte on tour, is in the director’s seat.
For the West End premiere, Roddy lived in London for 12 weeks, looking on at rehearsals every day, doing daily rewrites. “I attended every preview and then the meetings the next day as we discussed what was and wasn’t working,” he recalls. “My role this time round has been less vital, although sitting in on the read-through with the new cast was just terrific.”
Has he felt emotional returning to his first work of fiction, a novel penned in 1987 and then adapted for the screen in 1991 by director Alan Parker, with a screenplay co-written by Doyle, recounting the rise and fall of a young, working-class soul band in Dublin?
“It’s brought back a lot of memories, yes. I was a geography and English teacher at the time when I wrote the novel. I wanted an excuse to bring a bunch of young people together in book form and capture the rhythm of Dublin kids yapping and teasing and bullying,” Roddy says.
“But I needed to find a setting outside school and that’s when the idea of a band came to me. A big band with a brass section and backing vocals, as opposed to three or four young men that was the norm back then.”
Roddy has resisted the temptation to update the setting from the 1980s. “The vibrancy is still there but so is the tension caused by lack of communication. 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,” he says. “And I chose Sixties’ music – Motown and Memphis soul – because, at the time, it felt timeless. Thirty-five years later, I was right.”
For a long time, Roddy was a teacher who wrote on the side. “I loved teaching and the holidays were great, a time when I got into the habit of writing. I wrote The Commitments in 1986, it was published the following year, and I was working on the screenplay in 1988. But I was still teaching up until 1993,” he says.
The Snapper and The Van followed in 1990 and 1991 respectively, joining The Commitments in what became known as the Barrytown Trilogy. Then, in 1993, Roddy hit the jackpot when Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, his novel about a rumbunctious ten-year-old in a north Dublin suburb in 1968, won the prestigious Booker Prize.
“I was delighted,” says Roddy, who was 35 at the time. “It was a great compliment, although I can’t remember what I said in my acceptance speech. But I do recall then being taken away to be interviewed when all I really wanted to do was get back to the table and share the moment with my wife and publisher.
“But it felt as if I’d instantly become public property, and I didn’t like it. What I wanted more than anything was to go back to Ireland and live as near a normal life as possible. I deliberately continued to use public transport, for example. But now, almost 30 years later, I can take it in my stride.”
Pick up any of Doyle’s early books, in particular, and you could almost be reading a screenplay. “That’s true. I think that the best way of establishing characters is to get them talking. That’s especially true of The Commitments – and it gave me a template which I used for some years. The fact is, we talk a lot in Ireland.”
Roddy has an attic office in his home where he writes, but since the lifting of lockdown, he has acquired a room in the city centre where he will tap away too. “At one level, I was asking myself why I’d want another office, but it struck me as a good idea to get out of the house and walk around and experience Dublin opening up, coming alive again. It’s been really interesting,” he says.
“Also, my three children are grown up now and no longer living at home, so I’m not surrounded by the rhythm of their speech.”
Roddy takes a disciplined approach to work, usually writing from nine until six each day. “But I’ve become a bit more relaxed as I’ve got older,” he says. “There’s nothing quite as nice as going to see a film at the cinema in daylight, and I never don’t feel guilty.”
Whatever came afterwards, The Commitments will always hold a special place in Roddy’s heart for the simple reason that it was his first published book. He is fond, too, of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, wherein narrator Paula, after a litany of domestic abuse, realises that her husband, Charlo, has been interfering with their daughter and duly brings down a frying pan on his head?
“I’d found it really hard to write in the first person as a woman,” reveals Roddy. “It took a long time to find Paula’s voice. I also had little or no experience of violence or of physical pain. But into the second year, it began to flow really well.”
Even so, he worried whether he had written something authentic. In 1994, he had penned the four-part series Family for the BBC, featuring Paula and her immediate circle. “When it was broadcast in Ireland, it caused an absolute storm,” he recalls. “It was condemned by the Catholic church. Where were the songs from The Commitments? Where was the laughter? There wasn’t any.”
Then Roddy was contacted by Women’s Aid, who had heard he was writing the book. “When I’d finished, I gave them the manuscript, which they then distributed among ten women who’d been through abusive relationships,” he says.
“A few weeks later, I went to a meeting to listen to their reaction. I sat down, the only man in the room, and kind of held my breath. The person in charge asked if anyone wanted to say anything. ‘Yes,’ said the woman in front of me. ‘How did you get inside my bleeping head?’ It’s the best review I’ve ever had in my life.”
At 64, Roddy remains prolific, chalking up 12 novels, three collections of stories, eight books for children and a book he co-wrote with Irish footballer Roy Keane, The Second Half. He has written the plays Brownbread and Guess Who’s Coming For The Dinner and co-adapted The Woman Who Walked Into Doors with Joe O’Byrne, as well as his stage adaptation for The Commitments. He also wrote the screenplays for The Snapper, The Van, Family and When Brendan Met Trudy.
Retirement seems unlikely. Indeed, Roddy was once quoted as saying that he hoped to die mid-sentence. “Well,” he says, “It might be nice to get to a full stop.”
The Commitments, Grand Opera House, York, November 7 to 12, 7.30pm; 2.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/york.