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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Palace


  Killian Donnelly and company/ Ph: Johan Persson

Director Jamie Lloyd, a protégé of Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse, has been playing his part in enlivening the West End with his terrific Trafalgar Transformed season at the Trafalgar Studios. He now moves up a notch into the big new musical stakes with a staging of Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel best known as the Alan Parker 1991 movie. It’s a decidedly mixed blessing.
In its frantic catalogue of soul number classics – Otis Redding, the Stones, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, with a few blasts of Motown (Aretha Franklin’s “Save Me” is a real treat) – the show delivers the concert side of things, and there’s a clever balancing up of the onstage performers in the improvised band of Dublin losers and the offstage (unseen) musos under Alan Berry’s musical direction.
But Doyle – who has looked a bit silly in declaring that the world would be a better place without The Sound of Music, especially when the recent Open Air production in Regent’s Park reaffirmed its masterpiece status – has serious intentions, re-writing the book himself in order to reinforce a social message and the innate grittiness.
This is down-at-heel Dublin in the suburbs, here named Barrytown, for whom the Celtic Tiger never really roared, a working class community with no jobs, no facilities and no hope. Hope, money and happiness, a programme note suggests, are just as scarce today, as the recession bites and the campaign of the upstart band manager, Jimmy – played with a winning charm and lopsided grin in the style of Hugh Grant by newcomer Denis Grindel – is both a protest and a positive initiative.
Trouble is, the texture of the society onstage never thickens beyond a jokey superficiality, and none of the characters progress beyond feeble caricature. Doyle’s writing, so good in the novel, doesn’t come across in the theatre, and certainly not in the palatial barn of the ironically inappropriate Palace, a Victorian pet project of Andrew Lloyd Webber for the last 30 years – and (memo to Roddy) first London home of The Sound of Music – lately sold on to Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer’s Nimax company.
The producers cannily opened the show to half-price previews, and it will be interesting to see if that opening flurry will survive the mixed reviews, let alone the sterner gaze of New York when it comes to the matter of new musicals. Ann Yee’s choreography, for a start, looks decidedly pedestrian until the stage is cleared at last of designer Soutra Gilmour’s laboriously over-detailed settings on mobile trucks and the “big number” is staged for the visiting record manager.
Lighting designer Jon Clark shines a battery of lamps into the audience’s faces, and while this may be a fair evocation of the rock concert lighting of the 1980s, things really have moved on, and Lloyd’s production falls badly between the two stools of period authenticity and contemporary expectation. Even beside such (far superior) jukebox musical nostalgia jags as Mamma, Mia! and The Jersey Boys, whose libretti really land between the songs, The Commitments looks hopelessly old-fashioned.
Nor does it pull off the Billy Elliot trick of lining up the politics of the piece in the service of theatrical ecstasy. Only when Killian Donnelly as Deco, the lead singer – remember that large blonde guy, Andrew Strong, in the movie? He’s nothing like him; lean, mean stubble-bearded and vocally rasping – lets rip does the joint start jumping.
There’s some garish gooning and gurning by Joe Woolmer as a jokey skinhead who trains his wild and unfocussed aggression onto the drum kit, and Stephanie McKeon leads a feisty trio of girls with attitude who spend the evening smoothing down the Motown edges in close harmony while fending off the overtures of Ben Fox’s trumpet-playing Joey “the Lips” Fagan.    


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