The Commitments at the Bristol Hippodrome

A string of great soul standards delivered by the now famous ‘unknown’ band from Dublin, what’s not to like?

Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger who has now been associated with the production since 2013, a zesty cast fired their way through 24 soul-infused hits in this staged version of Roddy Doyle’s novel, leaving a standing, clapping and cheering crowd very happy by the time the encore, Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, finally brought the curtain down.

My instinct was to compare stage and film versions, having loved the movie directed by Alan Parker back in 1991. The staged version remains true to all the main characters, but has a tendency to fast forward the more subtle interchanges between them. With 10 more songs than feature in the film to get through, relationships tended to be sudden, rather than evolve, in order for the production to push on to the next foot stomping hit.

Not that that was a problem particularly. For the most part the sheer quality of the singing and musicianship was more than enough to carry the night. But Joey the Lips’ (Alex McMorran) conquests with the three singers, for instance, were fleetingly realised on stage, and rages between band members seemed to sometimes spontaneously ignite without much build up beforehand. Imelda’s growing fondness for band manager Jimmy Rabbitte was but a short blip. More attention was given to the character of Jimmy’s dad though, played by the excellent Kevin Kennedy, who occupied one unit of Soutra Gilmour’s nicely detailed, mobile sets. And Sam Fordham threw himself into the role of head banging security guard/replacement drummer, Mickah, with abandon.

What the show lacked in occasional dramatic depth, it always made up for in spades with scintillating song, and fast stage direction. And what songs! Reach Out I’ll Be there, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Chain Of Fools, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted – these were the tunes that brought me emotional intelligence back in the day. Anthems of the dispossessed, these songs perfectly supported Doyle’s metaphor of the Irish being the ‘Blacks’ of Europe; The Commitments, as Dubliners, being the ‘Blacks’ of Ireland; and North Dubliners being the ‘Blacks’ of Dublin.

Brian Gilligan certainly cut it as the naturally talented lead singer Deco, showing some beautiful phrasing in It’s A Thin Line Between Love And Hate and Try A Little Tenderness, and belting out the likes of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and I Can’t Turn You Loose like it was his last night on Earth. The singers, Natalie, Imelda and Bernie, were fabulously performed here by Amy Penston, Leah Penston and Christina Tedders, who had fireworks in their feet and harmonies to die for. As an ensemble they raised the roof, and all praise to Sound Designer Rory Madden for a beautifully balanced trajectory.    ★★★★☆     Simon Bishop  22nd February  2017