There's no doubting the commitment that a fiercely hard-working and fierily versatile cast of actor-musicians bring to The Commitments, the new stage version of Roddy Doyle's 1987 novel that the author has himself adapted. If the heart of the show is the soul music that the fictional Dublin cover band of the title both celebrate and loudly recreate, accompanied by frequently blinding light, then it should be a gold-plated triumph.
But though there's a cheerfully chaotic air to both the band's own evolution and the musical revolution they seemingly inspire (but we have to take on trust as it is never clearly established), the ubiquitous Jamie Lloyd doesn't lend his usually firm directorial hand to give the scrappy, sometimes hazily sketched proceedings more shape and weight. Maybe it is intentional for the action to pass in a blur of impressionistic scenes, but there are times -- particularly in the first act -- when the show can't seem to decide whether it is a play with occasional bursts of song (many are not heard to completion), or a fully-fledged jukebox musical.
As it is, there's no proper attempt to make the songs emerge organically out of the action, but instead are merely illustrative examples of the sort of music they are intended to so vividly celebrate. Then, as the band itself collapses in inevitable acrimony, the show also collapses into the inevitable on-your-feet curtain call reunion that brings them all back together.
Now the audience supplies its own energy to match that of the cast, and there's the familiar sight of spectators, at first reluctantly but eventually without reserve, joining the celebrations. If you've seen Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, Thriller Live, Dirty Dancing or Rock of Ages, you'll know just what they're up to: the audience is being convinced that it has had a good time.
And I'm not going to deny here that they often are. There's some heart -- and a little art -- to a show that tears through such great classics as "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted," "In the Midnight Hour" and "Try a Little Tenderness."
The mostly youthful (and largely unknown) cast, led by Denis Grindel as Jimmy who puts the band together and Killian Donnelly as frontman Deco, give them their all and some more. Under the musical direction of Alan Berry and the crisp sound design of Rory Madden, the songs sound fantastic.
I just wish there was a bit more content and originality. Jersey Boys, playing just down the street at the Prince Edward, showed what you could do with a familiar song stack to tell the real-life story of the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. And Once, playing across the road at the Phoenix, is much more evocative and heartfelt, to my eyes and ears, in its story of another set of fictional Dublin musicians.
"The biggest compliment I can pay Jamie Lloyd’s production is to say that it really has got soul. It’s memorably gritty at times (the swear-word count is exceptionally high) and also proves wonderfully funny and touching."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"If only Doyle – who adapted his own book – and director Jamie Lloyd had tried to give things some semblance of plot, still more some properly defined characters, they might have broken the jukebox-musical mould. Instead, this show simply buys into a form that has delivered big profits in the West End, and probably will here, too. "
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
" It offers a pumpy night out full of noisy tunes played by a musically competent cast.I found it all faintly exhausting and blunt. Go to this show if you want lots of music and swearing. Do not go if you want insights or variety of tone and pace."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The evening is much more successful as a staggered gig than as drama."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Has plenty of pace and energy."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard