Theatre review: The Commitments; Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show; World Domination

Allan Stewart appears as Theresa May while his fellow varietals sparkle. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Allan Stewart appears as Theresa May while his fellow varietals sparkle. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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WHEN The Commitments first appears on stage at the Playhouse, it comes as something of a shock. There’s no instant glitz, no big opening number; what we get is a pub on one side, a living-room on the other, and people talking, in the fast, witty North Dublin voices of Roddy Doyle’s brilliant 1987 novel, about how it felt to be young in Dublin in the 1980s.

Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

Louise Ludgate wields the whip in World Domination.

Louise Ludgate wields the whip in World Domination.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

The music comes soon enough, though, as our junior manager hero Jimmy Rabbitte launches The Commitments, a ten-piece soul band complete with tempestuous lead male singer Deco, three female backing singers, two guitars, drums, sax, piano, and a philandering elderly rocker on trumpet. Their repertoire of soul classics ranges from Proud Mary to River Deep Mountain High; and they’re soon making a sound thrilling enough to win them a possible recording contract.

That’s where it also starts to go a little pear-shaped, of course; the title of Doyle’s novel is both a cry from the heart and a gentle joke, as the band begins to fall apart for all the usual reasons.

Like the novel, though, the show stands as a huge tribute to what it calls “the music of the working class”, the sound that came from, and spoke for, those with little beyond the music they loved; and in Caroline Jay Ranger’s touring production, a mainly young cast make Roddy Doyle’s story work brilliantly, both for the time when it was written, and for today.

At the King’s Theatre, meanwhile, Edinburgh’s beloved pantomime dame Allan Stewart stages another of his Big, Big Variety Shows, although in truth it’s neither quite so big, nor quite so varied, as in some past years; there are no acrobats, no ventriloquists, no novelty acts at all.

What we get, though, is an uneven but sometimes thrilling exploration of the relationship between Allan Stewart, his loyal wing-man Grant Stott, and an Edinburgh audience, with added sparkle – and layers of local meaning – provided by super-camp Britain’s Got Talent star Edward Reid, the legendary 1970s Edinburgh band Pilot, and the inimitable actress, singer, and former Edinburgh resident Elaine C Smith, in scintillating form.

Stott delivers a delightful comedy set focusing on Edinburgh night-life back in the 1980s, when he was both a young policeman and a part-time disc jockey. And at the centre of it all, there’s Elaine C, come not to sing – although she does sing, brilliantly, to illustrate her thoughts – but to deliver a brave and thrilling sequence of high-powered feminist comedy, just when we least expect it.

This week’s new Play, Pie and Pint drama, by actress and playwright Lesley Hart, also speaks with the voice of a major Scottish city, although this time, that voice belong to the nation’s troubled oil capital, Aberdeen, just a few years into an even more uncaring and cash-strapped future.

Ex-junkie and wild child Anne returns home after a long absence to find her older sister Karen down in the basement of her suburban family home, running an apparently successful sex business as a whip-cracking dominatrix with global ambitions.

The point of the play is that although the Anne initially seems to be the sister with problems, it soon becomes clear that it’s Karen who is really in meltdown. There’s a metaphor here about the state of 21st century catastrophe capitalism, and the increasing damage it inflicts on those who try to live by its values.

And in Jac Ifan Moore’s production for Play, Pie And Pint and Sherman Cymru, Hannah Donaldson and Louise Ludgate give a matched pair of commanding performances, the one with the whip in her hand, but the other with all the moral authority, gradually gaining strength.

JOYCE MCMILLAN