"The Commitments" hits stage with tunes, Irish lilt but no horse

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Novelist Roddy Doyle's "The Commitments" about young people starting up a soul band in the harsh times of 1980s Ireland has made it to the stage as a "jukebox" musical filled with tunes and Irish charm but shorn of most plot and political overtones.

After a half hour or so devoted to the efforts of Jimmy Rabbitte, played by Denis Grindel of Donegal making his West End debut, to form what he calls "the hardest working band in the world", the evening settles down into almost a non-stop tribute to the Motown catalogue.

The hits belted out by the mostly young, energetic and largely Irish cast for the opening in London on Tuesday night include Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", the Four Tops' "Reach Out", Aretha Franklin's "Think", the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally".

Veteran theatre hand Jamie Lloyd directed from the musical's book, which Doyle adapted from his 1987 novel of the same name.

Predictably absent is the famous "horse in the lift" scene from Alan Parker's 1991 film adaptation in which a boy leads a steed into the lift of a Dublin housing estate because "the stairs will kill 'im".

"We didn't get the horse in the lift, we did auditions but no one was impressed," Killian Donnelly, who plays the band's charismatic but short-tempered lead singer Deco, joked at the opening-night party held in an Irish-themed London pub.

"We had a three-legged donkey at one point but it wasn't working," said Donnelly, who came to "The Commitments" from the role of Tony in the West End hit "Billy Elliot".

The performance of Donnelly, from County Meath, as the band's kingpin whose departure after a fight eventually leads to its collapse pretty much brought down the opening-night house.

COACHING BROUGHT OUT "GROWL"

He attributed the power of his performance to intensive vocal coaching to find his inner "growl" and to infusions of steamed honey, glycerine and lemon to keep from going hoarse.

Donnelly said he saw parallels between his last gig in "Billy Elliot", which is about a coal miner's son becoming a ballet dancer, and his new one. Both are about young people trying to rise from poverty and escape the dreariness of everyday life.

"The root of the story is for the kids this is something to give them a glimpse of hope," he said.

Following its "Celtic Tiger" boom of the 1990s through 2008, Ireland is once again sunk into economic bleakness, but the musical of Doyle's novel, part of his "Barrytown Trilogy", pays mostly lip service to political and social issues.

There are one or two references to "the Troubles" of sectarian violence that gripped feuding Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, and an occasional jibe at the strict moral code and taboos against freewheeling sex enforced by the church in Ireland at that time.

The programme notes by Patrick Lonergan, a professor of drama at the National University of Ireland, Galway, say the trio of female backup vocalists, ably played by Irish lasses Jessica Cervi, Stephanie McKeon and Sarah O'Connor, shows them using music "to take control of their own sexuality ... That was not an easy thing to do in mid-1980s Dublin."

But for the most part, in the musical of "The Commitments" the jukebox is on non-stop. An audience looking for a night of good, capable covers of some of the most famous soul tunes of all times, delivered with an Irish lilt, will not go wrong. (Editing by Pravin Char)

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