The West End is saturated with jukebox musicals featuring the back catalogues of the likes of Abba, Queen and Michael Jackson. Then, there are also several film to stage adaptations such as Billy Elliot and The Lion King, now being joined by From Here to Eternity.
Steph McKeon, Sarah O'Connor, Jessica Cervi and Killian Donnelly in The Commitments at the Palace Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
The first category was fatally undermined by the failure of Viva Forever!. But now, following in the footsteps of Dirty Dancing and The Bodyguard, The Commitments offers a commercially appealing hybrid of both genres. It plunders a familiar back catalogue with a title that is already familiar from a book (Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel), and a movie (the 1991 BAFTA award-winning feature directed by Alan Parker).
In the case of The Commitments, the musical jukebox - which draws on a programme listing of nearly 40 songs, not all of them sung in their entirety - is naturally embedded into the action by being about a Dublin-based soul covers band. But although director Jamie Lloyd and author Roddy Doyle, adapting his own novel, lend it a cheerfully chaotic flavour, there’s no attempt to make the songs emerge organically out of the paper-thin plot of the formation of the band, its inevitable disintegration in acrimony or its supposedly triumphant reformation for an on-your-feet curtain call reunion.
The latter is a familiar device gesture from a genre that persuades a gullible audience that it is having a good time by getting them to entertain themselves by dancing and clapping along. It has to be admitted that there are genuinely crowd-pleasing moments in the unstoppable parade of familiar hits on offer, except that they’re too often stopped in their tracks (in every sense), particularly in the first act, by Doyle’s attempts to establish characters among the band.
Unfortunately, there are too many characters for them to be developed satisfactorily, and Lloyd’s production is too strenuously busy to allow time for that to happen. Soutra Gilmour’s pop-up sets, meanwhile, filmically cover locations from living rooms and bedrooms to pubs.
The Commitments also suffers by comparison with two shows currently playing in theatres on either side of it. Down Old Compton Street at the Prince Edward, Jersey Boys, which channels a story of the real-life rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons,is a more satisfying jukebox compilation for being based on a core repertoire and a true story. Meanwhile, at the Phoenix, Once - which also revolves around a set of fictional Dublin musicians - offers far more emotional investment in its story and a searing score.
There’s no doubting, though, the conviction of the company of mostly young and unknown actor-musicians brought together here by casting director David Grindrod. The show is an engaging triumph for charismatic leads Denis Grindel (who puts together the band) and Killian Donnelly as his frontman.
Whether it becomes a box office hit depends on the extent of the enduring appetite for pop nostalgia at West End prices. But it is, at least, a significant improvement on the soon-to-depart Rock of Ages, for which it deserves thanks.