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Deco (Brian Gilligan) in The Commitments. Photography by Johan Persson

Review: The Commitments at New Theatre Oxford

Esther Lafferty on a simple story with soul at its heart and a great line up of musical numbers that have your shoulders swaying and feet a-tapping
Photography by Johan Persson

"Every song is a cracker"

Head to the New Theatre this week for something for the soul and you’ll step into 1986 in drab North Dublin, where the working class youth who live in these streets feel disenfranchised, although the staging of Irish rain raises a chuckle.

 

This production is based on a novel written by Irish novelist Roddy Doyle that was made into a film with a best-selling soundtrack in the early nineties, and describes the birth and short life of the formation and growth of an Irish soul band, in pre-X-Factor days.

Photography by Johan Persson

 

In a small terraced house, Jimmy (played by Andrew Linnie) dreams of making something of himself, inspired by the sound of classic black American soul, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, he begins to put together a group called The Commitments with two of his friends.

There’s a funny sequence of auditions as Jimmy looks for band members: it’s a motley and mismatched crew that he pulls together in a smoky old garage perfumed with hash and includes a terrible saxophonist and Joey ‘The Lips’ (played by Alex McMorran), an older man who tells dubious tales of his days working with big names in the US as well as the Beatles. Soul, he says, is dignity. Soul, says Jimmy, oozes sex, and for the teenage boys on stage this is enough of a dream, particularly when the band includes the desirable Imelda.

Meanwhile at the local sweet factory’s Christmas party, one of the drinkers has an unlikely voice – Deco (Brian Gilligan) only sings when drunk but he’s the man they need to front the band. As we see the band rehearsing, the tensions in the band are clearly apparent. Deco fancies himself as a Eurovision Song contest winner, and his egotistical nature and other jealousies between band-members put the band at risk. (In a real life twist, Brian Gilligan originally played the role of drummer Billy ‘The Animal’ Mooney in the West End production and it wasn’t until several months later, when the director overheard him singing to himself in the stairwell at The Palace Theatre and was blown away by his talent, that he was recast as Deco a few weeks later.)

The Commitments is not a show with great drama and in-depth character development; it’s a simple story with soul at its heart, a great line up of musical numbers that have your shoulders swaying and feet a-tapping – every song is a cracker, from ‘What Becomes of The Broken Hearted’, ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’, to ‘Mustang Sally’ to name just three of twenty or more classics.

And after a short second half, the band then play a series of songs for the audience who are encouraged to dance in the aisles, and dance we did, with great gusto: it was a great night out that was good for the soul!

- Esther Lafferty

 

The Commitments is at New Theatre Oxford until 14th January.

 

Related Articles: An interview with Andrew Linnie, star of The Commitments