By David Hennessy
A full quarter of a century after the publication of Roddy Doyle’s first book, The Commitments is coming to the West End stage at The Palace Theatre, directing by award winning Jamie Lloyd and adapted by the author himself.
The inspirational tale of music fanatic Jimmy Rabbitte and the world’s hardest working band bringing soul to the people of Dublin was successful first as a book and then a 1991 film, directed by Alan Parker and starring Colm Meaney. This stage play will introduce The Commitments’ larger than life characters to new audiences some not even born when its earlier incarnations were released.
Since writing the original tale, the author has penned several novels including the second and third parts of The Barrytown Trilogy which also followed the Rabbitte family, The Snapper and The Van. These were also made into successful films directed by Stephen Frears. Doyle was awarded the Booker Prize in 1993 for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. His previous theatre writing includes the 2003 reworking of his Paula Spencer novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors while he has also penned the screenplays for When Brendan Met Trudy and Family which aired on RTE and BBC. A 2007 adaptation of his short story, New Boy was nominated for the Academy Award in the short film category, winning other awards also. Known for the snappy and humorous dialogue that enrich his novels, the Dublin author has this year been shortlisted for the literary honour, Carnegie Medal for A Greyhound of a Girl. If he was to win this accolade, he would make history as only the second author to win both the Booker and the Carnegie awards.
It was in 2001 that Doyle reacquainted himself with the main character of his first novel, writing an older Jimmy Rabbitte in The Deportees, a short story that first appeared in Metro Eireann and then the collection of short stories, The Deportees and Other Short Stories. The story showed an older Jimmy with responsibilities but still his love of music and putting a band of non-Irish nationals together.
The story is to get another update soon with the publishing of Doyle’s The Guts in August which features a 47 year old Jimmy Rabbitte having been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The Irish World caught up with author Roddy Doyle at last week’s launch to ask why he was reluctant to bring The Commitments to the stage before now? “When the movie was released in Ireland, it was a monster. It was huge immediately, much to my surprise. I thought it would do okay but I couldn’t avoid it: It was on the radio it was everywhere I went. I was still secondary teaching and it began to define me in a way and after a while, I thought: ‘Enough of that’, even though it was going nowhere.
“It was released in September, I think, 1991 and was still in the cinemas in 1992 and people were coming up to me all the time: ‘Loved the film’, ‘loved the film’… which was nice. I would rather that than the opposite but in a way, I just erased it. I felt enough is enough and I feel that way often about work I’ve just done so I didn’t think about The Commitments for years, literally years, and only began to feel any way proprietorial about it when my children, one of whom wasn’t born when the film was released, actually watched the film one time I was away and it was almost like being reminded I’d written the book. And I watched it with them and because it had been quite a considerable time, I enjoyed it.
“There had been interest in The Commitments as a musical since the film was released and I began to go to films and musicals myself with the family and enjoy a lot of them. It’s often the case: I’m sitting watching a film and I’m looking at my watch and my wife is saying what are you doing? I’m timing it, I’m never quite not working. I’m figuring out over an hour long, what’s so good about this writing that we haven’t had a death or a car chase, a naked woman? It’s the same with musicals.
“One I saw was Billy Elliott and I’d seen the film. I had no imaginative sense of what the musical would be like but I forgot the film existed very early on and it struck me: This is the way to go, not to try and replicate one form onstage. Do it in a fresh way. So I became open to the idea. I suppose with the years, I felt I could go back to the book and not feel too precious about it. I read the book finally only a few years ago and because it had been nearly a quarter of a century since I’d read it, I was laughing at it and enjoying it as a piece of fiction as opposed to something that I’ve written and feel proprietorial about.”
Alan Parker’s film featured musicians such as Andrew Strong, Bronagh Gallagher, Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Corrs and, of course, Glen Hansard. The new production has taken the same approach. Three quarters of those already cast in this production are Irish, several coming from open auditions in Dublin, and many will be making their West End debut: “I think most people who were involved in The Commitments film or not just involved, that liked it, continue to like it would agree that one of the reasons it does have an endearing charm is because it wasn’t full of well known faces. These were either really musicians playing the parts of musicians or very good unknown actors pretending to be musicians.
“I think there’s a little aspiring musician in everybody, there’s a little aspiring footballer in most men and quite a few women as well, that never goes away so it makes sense to cast the stage play in the same spirit. It just makes sense. It’s not a religious conviction or intent. I just think if it’s to have the charm of the film in any way, if the stage curtain goes up and we recognise a cast member from a soap or something, I think a little bit of the charm is nibbled away somehow. It doesn’t necessarily mean the show wouldn’t work. It just seems to make sense to go for a bunch of young people not known wanting to be known forming a band, why wouldn’t you choose cast members who are in the same position themselves?”
For the full interview, see the May 4 edition of The Irish World