by Peter Nicholson.
It certainly doesn’t seem like over 30 years since I saw the film, but knowing that the stage show was coming to Southampton meant that I was looking forward to recapturing my enjoyment of 1991 movie. I’d not seen the stage show when it enjoyed huge success in the West End a few years ago, so I was keen to see it so close to home. The Mayflower is an amazing venue, and there’s not a bad seat in the house, certainly not one that I’ve sat in anyway.
Roddy Doyle self-published the book in 1987 with the help of a £5,000 bank loan. The story is about the highs and lows of being in a band, even though Doyle himself had never been in a band and had nothing to do with bands at the time, he was just a fan of live music and an observer of human nature.
The book received mixed reviews at first, there was one opinion that gave it the almost cult status it enjoys to this day. Elvis Costello commented on how it was an accurate depiction of being in a band. The sales grew, the book was picked up by a publisher, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I was wondering how the book and the film would transpose to a stage musical. The soundtrack was undeniably strong. Exceptionally strong! Drawing on all the soul classics, it could hardly fail on that front, but it was how the story would work on stage that I was interested to see.
Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed on that front. The jokes seemed very out of date, rather Benny Hill in places, and certainly of their time, but they just didn’t seem to work. The characters that I remembered from the film weren’t really allowed to develop, it seemed as though we were expected to know them already somehow. This wasn’t such a problem for me because I suppose I did in a way, but anyone coming to the story for the first time might have been left wanting. The actors did a great job with the script they had, but I was left feeling there was something missing.
The songs were as strong as ever, but the story needed them to be played badly at first, and this didn’t quite work for me in the show. It lacked the humour and fun of the film. The first half left me wondering if I was watching a play that wasn’t quite funny enough, or a musical that wasn’t quite good enough. The sound too seemed to be unimpressive, which is unusual for The Mayflower. It may have been where I was sat (the centre of the Dress Circle) but the volume seemed too high which resulted is some of the dialogue being lost.
The second half of the show was far better than the first. We learned a little more about the characters and the musical and vocal skills of the performers came to the fore. I realised that it must have been quite difficult for such a talented cast to sing and play at less than their best when they’d obviously spent their career aiming for that highest level of performance.
At the end of the show, we were treated to a mini concert which incorporated the cast bringing us some of the best soul music, performed with natural humour, obvious talent and a relaxed feel. It was a great way to end the evening. The audience suddenly came to life. On their feet, singing along and joining in with the cast, who were now clearly in their element. Ian McIntosh was superb. His vocals and stage presence were electrifying. I’m sure the audience could feel his relief to be singing at his best and working the audience so expertly, unlike his character in the show. For me, this was the highlight of the evening. The three backing singers were front and centre, clearly enjoying this part of the performance and revelling in the feedback from the crowd. The cast is supremely talented, and the show is definitely worth seeing, despite its shortcomings.
Tickets for The Commitments (27 March – 1 April) are on sale at mayflower.org.uk or 02380 711811.
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