The Commitments show begins its residency at the Palace Theatre this month, capping off a surreal and emotional journey for its writer.
I’m in London, for rehearsals of a musical version of my novel, The Commitments. I wrote the book – the book of the book; I find it easier thinking of it as the script – so I’ve been here since early August, watching a gang of people construct a show out of lines and details on 127 pages of script.
I’m staying in Earl’s Court and usually enter the Tube station from the Warwick Road side, at the Exhibition Centre. On Friday I walked into the station and saw hundreds of women coming at me. Hundreds of women, and one man. I looked back at the Exhibition Centre to see what was on: the Bake and Cake Show.
The women all looked like keen cake eaters and the man, about my age, maybe a bit younger, was holding hands with, actually clinging to one of them. He looked terrified, like a kid afraid he’d lose his mammy in the crowd.
I decided he’d been married before, probably twice, and this, he thought, was his last chance. So when his new girlfriend suggested they go together to the Bake and Cake Show, he hadn’t the heart to say, ‘You’re fuckin’ joking.’ He was afraid she’d never come back. She’d arm herself with a year’s supply of baking soda and vanilla essence and disappear into the mist.
Anyway. I was getting the Tube into the West End because this week we moved into the Palace Theatre. We spent August in a parish hall in Kensington, so now, seeing the set for the first time, seeing the cast onstage, even entering the theatre through the stage door where, years ago, I saw some members of the cast of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, in full metal jacket, having a smoke during the intermission – it’s been thrilling.
The set is a block of flats. The nearer you get to it, even standing on the stage, right at it, under it, it doesn’t become any less a block of flats. It’s hard to accept that it’s not concrete and pebble dash. Maybe it is – I’m afraid to touch it, in case a ledge falls off or the whole structure topples back, through the back wall onto Greek Street: ‘Hundreds Crushed By Musical’.
The set is solid but it constantly changes. Jimmy Rabbitte’s house slides out, Dean the sax player’s bedroom wall lifts, and there he is, learning to play the instrument. The indoors becomes the outdoors. A canteen becomes a pub. The story flows while the walls of the set keep it hemmed in, like the lives of the characters. They escape when they play. Their lives are lit – literally. Their voices soar and light the walls.
And, by the way, it’s very funny. Six weeks on, six days a week – I don’t really laugh any more. Or, not often. But, once or twice a day, I can’t help it. This morning, Mickah Wallace saying ‘I will in me hole’ sounded like the funniest thing I’d heard since the last time he said it, half an hour before.
And the music never stops sounding brand new and wonderful. I could listen to it all day and, at the moment, I do.
On Sunday morning, six days before the first preview, I watched as a crane lifted a huge drum off a truck and lowered it onto the canopy at the front of the Palace, where it now sits above THE COMMITMENTS – the two words lit, I’ve been told, by nineteen hundred super-bright LED lights.
It was an extraordinary experience, and one I didn’t know I’d have a chance to witness until the day before. It was funny, a bit absurd, and it made me cry – just a bit. I remembered an afternoon in 1986 when myself and my friend, John Sutton, walked out of the Raheny branch of the Bank of Ireland, in Dublin. The manager had just agreed to lend us the money to publish The Commitments and we were walking across to the bus stop, laughing.
Roll on, Saturday. I can’t fuckin’ wait.
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