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Commitments Lose Soul, Perfect ‘Ghosts’: London Theater

Killian Donnelly, center, and ensemble in
Killian Donnelly, center, and ensemble in "The Commitments." The show is based on the 1987 novel by Roddy Doyle, which was also made into a film by Alan Parker in 1991. Photographer: Johan Persson/Neil Reading PR vua Bloomberg

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- “The Commitments,” the latest jukebox behemoth to lumber into London’s West End, tells of a group of working-class Dubliners who get a band together to play covers of Motown classics like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

They start out hopefully. They argue. They split up. You’ve seen it all before.

It’s not the cliches that drag the show down. It’s possible, after all, to take the old rise-and-fall outline and give it a shakeup, like Tom Hanks did in his fun movie “That Thing You Do.”

What hampers the show -- based on a novel by Roddy Doyle, who also wrote the book -- is the absence of plot, character development and a great set.

It’s supposed to take place in a poor, depressed, heroin-infested Dublin in 1986. Here the atmosphere feels so generic that it could be anywhere from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

The story centers on Jimmy (an over-energetic Denis Grindel) and his efforts to inspire others with his love of black soul music.

“The Irish are the niggers of Europe, and the Dubliners the niggers of Ireland,” he tells his nonplussed colleagues. His lead singer Deco (Killian Donnelly) is an arrogant and violent windbag with a great voice.

The little tension there is comes too late, and sputters out inconsequentially. The love-interest plot is so clearly an afterthought that you’ll miss it if you blink.

Rating: **

Ghostly Perfection

It’s become common in some theatrical circles to mock the virtues of a well-crafted plot. Doyle doesn’t think one is necessary. Ibsen, thank heavens, did: “Ghosts” is a miracle of construction.

A period-costume revival at the Almeida puts heart, soul and flesh around all that clockwork perfection.

Lesley Manville is superb as Mrs. Alving, a woman who desperately tries to keep her family secrets hidden. The way her laugh changes through the play, from an uptight, controlled snort to wild hysteria, is a fascinating mirror of her disintegration. She gives as moving an interpretation of the role as I’ve seen.

Manville is supported by an excellent ensemble, including Will Keen as the misguided Pastor Manders, and taut, beautifully atmospheric direction from Richard Eyre. Rating: *****

“The Commitments” is at the Palace Theatre. Information: http://www.thecommitmentslondon.com. “Ghosts” is at the Almeida. Information: http://www.almeida.co.uk, +44-20-7359-4404

What the Stars Mean:
 *****      Exceptional
 ****       Excellent
 ***        Good
 **         So-so
 *          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

Muse highlights include the London and New York weekend guides, Lewis Lapham on history, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater, and Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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