Friday, 14 August 2015

The Commitments - how I got to tread the West End boards.....

IF I was to ever draw up a bucket list, performing on the West End stage would be right at the top. It's something I've secretly been secretly wanting to do since I was very young but as I've no particular aptitude for acting it's alluded me.
That was until a few weeks ago when to my surprise an email arrived in my inbox with an "it's too good to be true" request to fulfil this long held dream.
The PR company that looks after the award-winning West End show The Commitments, currently playing to packed houses at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, asked if I would like a walk on part in it.
Thinking it was a wind up I ignored it for a day or so before inevitably curiosity got the better of me and I replied asking for more information.
On further investigation and to my utter astonishment it was no wind up - in fact it was very much for real.
And so, never one to turn down an opportunity of a lifetime on Saturday, August 8 I arrived at the theatre's stage door to meet stage manager Marcus Watson who was to show me the ropes.

For those who've not seen the production or know the story it is based on the 1987 book by Roddy Doyle.
It follows the fortunes of a group of young unemployed but musical unknowns from north Dublin in the 1980s.
They were led by Jimmy Rabbitte who helps friends Derek Scully and "Outspan" Foster create a band who will be the saviours of soul music.
Through an advert in the local rag Jimmy recruits a motley crew of singers and musicians to form the band which he names The Commitments.
But just as they are beginning to gel and get established with a series of gigs and a possible record deal it all starts to go wrong.
Sparks fly, and fights ensue when lead singer Deco announces he's applying for Eurovision - without the band - the ageing trumpet player, Joey "The Lips" Fagan is seen kissing Commitmentette, Imelda and sax player Dean starts flirting with jazz.

The show itself is an absolute belter - performed with gusto, passion and a serious energy by the 27 strong hugely talented cast of actor musicians, most of whom hail from the Emerald Isle, and are supported by the 30-strong backstage crew.
The music is as impressive and as glorious as you would expect it to be with all the old classics such as Mustang Sally, I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Try A Little Tenderness.
So you won't be surprised to learn that there was more than a little trepidation on my part about what was to follow.

Given my previous "acting" experience was limited to playing Mr Bumble in a school production of Oliver Twist when I was about nine and a truly forgettable performance as Gwendoline Fairfax in The Importance Of Being Ernest at university I was hoping that my appearance would not require any acting ability - or more importantly that they'd regret their invitation!
Fortunately for me - and the audience - Marcus explained that all I had to do was to follow one of the ensemble characters on to the stage in the given scene, sit by the bar, chat to the bar manager, drink a pint of fake Guinness, watch the guys play darts and then leave at the end of the scene.
What could be easier than that?

First things first though, I had to get acquainted with the stage.
Marcus took me onto it through the wings and showed me where I would come on, where I would leave at the end of the scene and what I'd be doing.
The stage itself is small because the theatre is tall and narrow. As a result there isn't much room at the back or sides of the stage for the sets. It's down to the talented crew to negotiate their way around the actors as they change the sets at the end of each scene.
It's all very compact but looking out to an empty auditorium with its hundreds of seats on four levels, with all the stage lights on was both surreal and exciting.
But there was no time to admire the view, or get stage fright because I was needed in wardrobe.
There I met Wendy Phillips who dresses the cast. She has been working in costume departments in various London theatres for more than a decade so knows her stuff.
She soon found me a very 80s brown patterned dress, a pair of rather orange tights and a pair of brown shoes to wear.

A quick visit to wigs and I was done. It was there I met John McLarnon who plays guitarist Outspan who was having his hair done.
"You will be amazing," he smiled reassuringly. "We really love having people on - we've had other journalists and also competition winners. It's really fun for them and for us.
"It’s such a fantastic show that you can't help but have a good time doing it and you get a real buzz. You'll love it - so don't be nervous!"
Words of encouragement too came from Padraig Dooney who plays Sap, and who I was to follow onto the stage, as well as Daniel Lloyd who I was to follow off.
As I waited in the wings to go on I met Brian Gilligan who plays the quick tempered but vocally gifted Deco, the star of the show.
"Enjoy it," he said. "You will love it - good luck!"

And then I was on. Marcus led me under the stage and to the wings before I stepped out onto the stage.
It was all a bit of a dream and a blur but I had a chat with the bar manager, played by Christopher Fry and pretended to get enthused by the game of darts being played by Daniel while the main action was taking place in the centre of the stage.
I tried to take a peak of the audience but the lights were too dazzling to see properly.
All too soon though it was time to come off stage, get out of my costume and take my seat in the auditorium to watch the rest of the show - which is toe-tappingly terrific and well worth seeing.
As well as the excitement and utter thrill of being on stage it was fascinating to see at first hand how the show is put together backstage and the work that goes into getting ready.
Sadly I don't think there were any casting agents, directors or talent scouts in the audience that night to capture my brief appearance but it was the most unforgettable and brilliant experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The Commitments is on at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until Sunday November 1. Visit for full listings.

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