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The Commitments, Norwich Theatre Royal 2016: ‘It feels like we’re a band on the road,’ says lead actor Andrew Linnie

PUBLISHED: 08:47 29 November 2016 | UPDATED: 16:27 29 November 2016

Roddy Doyle has adapated his novel The Commitments for the stage. Picture: Simon Annand

Roddy Doyle has adapated his novel The Commitments for the stage. Picture: Simon Annand

Simon Annand; simonannand@blueyonder.co.uk; +44 (0) 7884446776

Irish wit and soul music Roddy Doyle’s tale of the adventures of a working class Dublin band, The Commitments, is at Norwich Theatre Royal. Andrew Linnie, who plays Jimmy Rabbitte, tells us more.

Andrew Linnie plays Jimmy Rabbitte on a mission to put together the best soul band in Dublin. Picture: Simon AnnandAndrew Linnie plays Jimmy Rabbitte on a mission to put together the best soul band in Dublin. Picture: Simon Annand

“We’re probably not as rock‘n’roll off stage and we are on it, but it definitely does feel as though we’re a band on the road. It can only help that we’re channelling our inner rock stars,” laughs Andrew Linnie.

The Irish actor-musician is heading the cast in the stage version of The Commitments, which is at Norwich Theatre Royal this week. He plays Jimmy Rabbitte, the young working class music fan who recruits an unlikely bunch to form the finest soul band Dublin has ever produced.

The story has been adapted for the stage by Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle, from his original novel, also the basis for Alan Parker’s hugely successful 1991 film.

That spawned a multi-million selling soundtrack and the stage version, which won much acclaimed on its West End premiere, is packed with more than 20 classic soul songs performed live on stage including Try A Little Tenderness, In The Midnight Hour, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Mustang Sally, and more.

The Commitments has been a huge success in the West End before heading to Norwich on tour. Picture: Simon AnnandThe Commitments has been a huge success in the West End before heading to Norwich on tour. Picture: Simon Annand

The show, directed by award-winning Jamie Lloyd, follows the journey of two members of a frustrated synthesizer band – the opening scene we find them playing but being ignored in a shop window – who turn to Jimmy, the local music expert, for help. Placing a classified advert in a music paper, Jimmy auditions a number of wannabes before finalising the new line up who he names The Commitments.

“Because it is about a band, and everyone is involved, it is definitely a close knit cast,” adds Andrew. “There are 20 of us and it is a really lovely bunch. When you’re not only acting together every night but also playing music together you cannot help but build a sense of camaraderie amongst the group.”

Heading the cast alongside Andrew is Kevin Kennedy — aka Coronation Street’s Curly Watts, who also delighted city audiences as Captain Hook in the Theatre Royal panto Peter Pan two years ago.

“He plays Jimmy’s dad, the role played in the film by Colm Meaney, who is famous for his love of Elvis and The Beatles and his scepticism about all this soul stuff,” said Andrew. “It’s a character that delivers a lot of the witty one liners and retorts when anything happens in the house.

Kevin Kennedy, who previously appeared in the Norwich panto, plays Jimmy's dad. Picture: Simon AnnandKevin Kennedy, who previously appeared in the Norwich panto, plays Jimmy's dad. Picture: Simon Annand

“Kevin is a great person to have around. On one hand he is a very experienced actor and has done a lot, so he’s a wise head. But also he has a rock‘n’roll background. He grew up with Johnny Marr in Manchester and was the original bass player in his band before Morrissey turned up. So he has got a great musical background and he has actually done The Commitments thing. He has been in a band growing up as a teenager, he has experienced the ego clashes and the pitfalls; he knows what it is like.”

The touring cast also includes many from the smash hit West End show, including Brian Gilligan (Deco), Amy Penston (Natalie), Sam Fordham (Mickah), Peter Mooney (Derek), Padraig Dooney (Dean) and John Currivan (Billy).

Andrew himself fell into the role of Jimmy in unexpected circumstances. Originally play the role of saxophone player Dean in the West End, he stepped at the last minute when the actor originally playing Jimmy and both the understudies were unavailable.

“I got a call at lunchtime saying ‘do you think you can give it a go?’” he recalls. “I said yes, as you would, but without thinking about the consequences. It was a strange but fantastic way to get to play the lead role in the West End. I got to play the role for half a week and it was a fantastic experience, threw myself in the deep end and learnt a lot. It worked out quite well thankfully, and now I’ve got to play the role of Jimmy on the tour. I obviously didn’t mess up too much.”

The Commitments features over 20 soul classics played live on stage. Picture: Simon AnnandThe Commitments features over 20 soul classics played live on stage. Picture: Simon Annand

In contrast to Dean, Jimmy is a non-musical role but, as Andrew explains, he is a character with music in the bones.

“He isn’t a musician, though he clearly wishes he could play and instrument. He is very passionate and knowledgeable about music, but he just doesn’t have the skill set, so he lives vicariously through the band.

“He has the famous line that the ‘Irish are the blacks of Europe’, which is how he justifies putting a soul band together. The rest of the show is then really about trying to hold the band together as he finds that the various egos amongst the group start to clash.

“The famous sequence at the beginning where everyone is coming in through the front door, giving their renditions of various songs as they try to get into the band after Jimmy has put an advert in the paper to try to drum up interest, is the starting point. It’s that thing of trying to make something out of nothing when you’ve not got much going on in your life.

Irish wit and soul music are the hallmark of the Dublin-set musical. Picture: Simon AnnandIrish wit and soul music are the hallmark of the Dublin-set musical. Picture: Simon Annand

“I think there is quite an element of Roddy Doyle in Jimmy. He, like Jimmy, is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about music. You can tell that from reading the book. However he isn’t a singer or musician himself, but he’s a mover and shaker, he sets the wheels in motion.”

Taking the same passionate approach, as well as adapting his story for the stage, Roddy Doyle was also present during rehearsals. The resulting show is a mixture of the book and the film.

“There is bit of both,” says Andrew. “There are songs from the film that aren’t in the book but that we do, but there are also some great lines from the book that aren’t in the film. They have come up with a nice middle ground. Rather than saying the film worked so let’s just throw that up on stage, they have really been careful to make sure that the show stands on its own two feet. So you get the best of both worlds; Roddy’s wit and dialogue and this brilliant soul back catalogue.”

He is keen to add that the show isn’t a traditional musical with scenes shoehorned between music numbers.

“It is very much a play about a band, but it has a hell of a lot of music in it. It goes through about 20 songs - soul classics - some of them stand alone, some running through a scene. It is not a musical in that you get a scene and then a song, there are moments where there is a song but with a scene interspersed in it. It is quite cleverly constructed in a song like You Keep Me Hanging On, you simultaneously have scene about Dean and that fact that he is veering off into jazz. It’s like a musical montage in a movie.”

As you’d expect the majority off the cast is musical, including sisters Amy and Leah Penston, who play two-thirds of backing singers The Commitmentettes.

“The standard is really impressive,” says Andrew. “I do miss getting to play an instrument myself - that was a fun thing to do, but the players that we have are fantastic. The standard is very high but it needs to be because it is not just about playing the songs it is about telling a story. You have to make the story believable.

The majority of the cast are Irish too.

“You don’t want to lose the fact that it has that sense of time and place. The humour and the language is very Irish, but at the same time Roddy’s books have sold all over the world and been critically acclaimed, he has won the Man Booker Prize, so there is more to it.

“However you don’t want to lose that Irishness, because that is very much part of what made it so popular in the first place. You want that authenticity.”

• The Commitments, Norwich Theatre Royal, November 28-December 3, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Nov 30/Dec 3, £40.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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