The soul survivors: Roddy Doyle finally brings The Commitments to the West End

The Commitments spawned a smash-hit film and classic soundtrack, but for 26 years Roddy Doyle has refused to put his debut novel on stage. As a new West End musical opens, Alice Jones finds out why he changed his mind

"Can we get Killian some chips? Please?" It is a Tuesday afternoon, one week until the official opening night of The Commitments in the West End and the show's director, Jamie Lloyd, is still honing the details with his props department. As the opening chords of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" throb out, a parcel appears from the wings, Killian Donnelly takes a mic in one hand, the greasy paper bag in the other and starts to sing in sultry soul falsetto, stuffing chips into his gob between phrases.

This is the Palace Theatre, in the heart of London's West End, but this is clearly not your average tits, teeth and jazz hands musical. This is The Commitments, the tale of a group of working-class Dublin youths who form a soul band, hit their groove, find fame, and then implode amid more artistic differences and romantic tiffs than Fleetwood Mac, the Sugababes and the Gallagher brothers put together.

Roddy Doyle wrote the original novel, his first, in 1987. In 1991, he adapted it for the big screen with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and a little help from the back catalogues of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Directed by Alan Parker, the film won four Baftas, was voted Best Irish Film of All Time in a 2005 poll, sold 12 million soundtracks and ensured that "Mustang Sally" would be a karaoke booth/wedding band staple for the rest of time.

And yet, for 26 years, Doyle has refused to put The Commitments on stage – arguably their natural home. "When the film came out I thought enough was enough," he says, backstage at the Palace. "It was a monster. It looked like it was never going to go away. And there were other things I wanted to do. At that time, at that age, I didn't want to be defined by one piece of work." In 1993, his fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, won the Booker Prize. "And that became a monster, too", he says, drily. Now 55, he has never stopped writing – novels, children's books, plays, screenplays – but The Commitments has never gone away either. Every few months someone would suggest he wrote a sequel – "Just a horrible idea" – or ask his permission to stage a musical.

"And I didn't want anything to do with it. My knowledge of musicals was almost totally absent," says Doyle. Does he like them? "Yes and no." It was only when he started taking his two young sons, now 22 and 20, to shows that he began to take the possibilities of the form seriously. "I remember thinking some were fantastic and others were pretty dreadful. The Producers – fantastic. Jersey Boys was brilliant, too, in the way the music was used. I began to be more open to the idea. Once a lot of time had passed, I suppose I didn't feel like I had to prove anything to anybody anymore."

1991's 'The Commitments' won four Baftas (Rex Features) 1991's 'The Commitments' won four Baftas (Rex Features)
In the autumn of 2010, Doyle and his agent went back through the files of requests and started talking to producers in London and New York, Las Vegas and Dublin. They settled on Phil McIntyre, the comedy mastermind behind the West End juggernaut We Will Rock You and hired Jamie Lloyd, 32, a promising director who already had hit musicals Passion and Piaf to his name. The next stage was to find a playwright.

After months of unsatisfying interviews, Doyle decided to have a go himself. "I didn't want to write the script because I didn't really feel qualified. I don't have any musical training. I don't play an instrument," he says. Like his hero Jimmy Rabbitte, the young idealist who forms a band but cannot sing a note himself, Doyle let his love of soul lead the way. "The challenge was – how do you tell a story that is saturated with music but is about a group of people who, at the start, don't know how to produce music? It is not just an excuse to throw a few soul or Motown songs together."

It is not conventional West End fare, either. The setting is grimy, the characters booze, brawl and swear and, to begin with, the band is a rag-tag bunch who sing only snippets of soul numbers often breaking off to fight or snog. "It was a relief when I read Roddy's first draft that he hadn't tried to shoehorn the songs into the narrative," says Lloyd. "It doesn't feel like a musical. It certainly isn't a jukebox musical. There isn't a woman called Sally who drives a Mustang. It's kind of a play and a concert rolled into one."

Both Lloyd and Doyle are at pains to stress that it is not just the film on stage. Doyle says that he hasn't watched the movie for over a decade. As for that famous soundtrack, "Kids grow up knowing it", he sighs. "I always think it would be better if they went for the originals."

"This is its own entity," says Lloyd. "Otherwise, you might as well tell an audience to buy the DVD for £4." That said, Lloyd has tried to mirror some of Alan Parker's social commentary about Dublin's poor with a looming tower block set, which converts "cinematically" from garage rehearsal to gig. "No matter how successful they become", he says. "They never really escape that tower block or their backgrounds."

Doyle's story of a gang of no-hopers who form "The World's Hardest Working Band", to bring soul music to the people has timeless appeal. But if you were looking for contemporary echoes, the journey from auditions to fame and its messy aftermath is also pure X Factor. "Now we have The X Factor. Back then we had Opportunity Knocks", says Doyle. "It's all about the story. Talented people never get through on The X Factor because they come from functional homes and there's no drama. We tend to be fond of people who climb out of a hole."

The film propelled many unknowns to stardom (see box, right), including Glen Hansard, who played Outspan and who co-wrote the hit musical Once. Colm Meaney, last seen playing DJ Pat Farrell opposite Alan Partridge in Alpha Papa, played Jimmy's father while Andrea Corr played his sister in a non-singing role.

Roddy Doyle: 'I didn’t want to be defined by one piece of work' Roddy Doyle: 'I didn’t want to be defined by one piece of work'
In that spirit, the play is full of new faces, only one of whom was born when Doyle's novel came out. Jimmy is played by Denis Grindel, 22, a One Direction lookalike who is still at drama school. Deco is played by Killian Donnelly, a stalwart of Les Mis and Phantom but never before the lead. Backing singers The Commitmentettes are all making West End lead debuts, while Mark Dugdale taught himself bass to win the part of Derek. "They're all bringing something fresh," says Lloyd. "My desire was not to create a whitewashed, glossy West End version. It feels rough, ready and raw and it's all the better for it."

The real stars of the show are the songs. They get top billing, in giant red letters, on the Palace facade – "KNOCK ON WOOD", "SATISFACTION", "TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS". There is surprisingly little overlap with the film soundtrack; many of the lesser-known soul numbers have been jettisoned. And while the producers were refused the rights to some on their wish list – "Anything by James Brown, 'Soul Man', 'It's a Man's World…'" says Lloyd – there are plenty of hits. "Mustang Sally" will be in there although Doyle did not write it into his script. "When I looked at the lyrics they just didn't offer anything in terms of bringing the story along," he says. "There's no real reason to have that song," agrees Lloyd. "But if we didn't have it, there would be a riot."

There might be a riot, too, if the show taints the legacy of a much-loved book and film. But Doyle, whose name is splashed across a giant drumkit outside the theatre, is not too worried. "There's always a gamble. It could go wrong. But the book will be fine and the film will be fine. This thing will disappear if the people don't like it."

'The Commitments', Palace Theatre, London W1 (0844 412 4656) booking to 26 January

Hits and misses: where are the originals now?

Andrew Strong (Deco, lead singer)

Following the film, Strong toured with Elton John, Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones, and signed a half-a-million-pound record deal – but his solo albums failed to reach expectations. Last month, he embarked on a tour of Australia, performing his own material alongside some 'Commitments' songs to keep fans happy.

Glen Hansard (Outspan, guitar)

After returning to his Dublin-based band The Frames, Hansard had a global hit with the film 'Once', in which he starred as an Irish busker and for which he won the 2008 Oscar for Best Song. A hit on Broadway, the musical won eight Tony awards, and received rave reviews on its opening in Spring at London's Phoenix Theatre, where it's still going strong.

Maria Doyle Kennedy, (Natalie, Commitmentette)

Best known as Vera, the vindictive estranged wife of valet John Bates in 'Downton Abbey', Kennedy's other TV series have included 'The Tudors', 'Dexter' and 'Titanic'. She sings with her husband, Kieran, and the duo have released several albums.

Andrea Corr, (Sharon Rabbitte, Jimmy's little sister)

She didn't sing in it but Corr (above) is arguably the film's most famous alumna, having sold 60 million records with The Corrs in the Nineties. In 2003, she resumed her acting career, most recently appearing in 'Dancing at Lughnasa' at the Old Vic and 'Jane Eyre' at Dublin's Gate.

Robert Arkins, (Jimmy Rabbitte, manager)

Despite his lead role in 'The Commitments', Arkins' acting career never took off – his last part was in the short film 'Head' in 2003. Since then, he has composed soundtracks for short films.

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