Irish actor Killian Donnelly is currently wowing London audiences as Deco in The Commitments at London’s Palace Theatre.
The show is an adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name which was turned into a film in 1991. Directed by Jamie Lloyd, the new stage production brings the iconic novel to life on stage packing in all the music you know from the movie.
We caught up with Killian to find out more about the show, talk about his fearless performance and discuss how the role compares to his impressive past West End roles.
What have you been up to other than the show this week?
Yesterday we went to Children in Need at Elstree Studios and we went there on the bus. I’ve never seen The Commitments so excited in all my life than getting a big bus to take us to the BBC Studios. We were all saying ‘we’re a real band! We’re on a tour bus!’ When we got there we did a soundcheck for about an hour and half and sang Mustang Sally and Try a Little Tenderness about six times. Then we got back on the bus and were brought to the Palace Theatre where we all got burgers into us. We did the show last night and got a standing ovation! After you’ve had a day like that you’re a bit like ‘oh god I’m so tired for the show’ and then you get the buzz of the audience and go ‘this is going to be a cracking night, I love this’. Today I’ve been back at BBC Radio centre doing interviews again.
Pretty busy then?
Yeah! I love it though. It’s go, go, go! It’s really good.
For those that haven’t seen The Commitments yet tell us in a nutshell what it’s about.
The show itself is about a group of about 10 unknowns in Dublin in 1986. A young man called Jimmy Rabbitte takes them all and puts them into a soul band to bring soul to the people of Dublin. These kids have never heard soul, don’t know who James Brown or Otis Redding is, Marvin Gaye or any of these, and this music just hits and touches them. It takes them away from their humdrum lives in Dublin and they just play to the people of Dublin and become little superstars in their own little town. Before you know it there’s record producers interested and they get contracts being offered. It’s a beautiful little simple comedy story about the clashes that happen when putting a band together, especially the character I play Deco who is the catalyst for all of the fights really because his ego’s too big for the stage. It’s just a lovely, lovely little story.
Deco really is the livewire of the band. What attracted you to that role?
Exactly that! (laughs) I guess as an actor it’s something I’ve never done before. I was always put in as Enjolras in Les Mis or Raoul in The Phantom, these handsome leading men so Deco was the complete opposite; an arrogant, rude, crude soul singer. I absolutely love the book and I love the movie. Roddy Doyle is a household name in Ireland and this is so iconic that I would literally have done anything to get it. Happy days that it came along.
I remember the final audition singing with different bands because they had three Joey the Lips, three drummers and be alternating all the time. I’d go in and sing Soul Man with the band and I’d leave and another man would come in. I’d come back and sing Soul Man again with another band. Hearing that music played live by actors on stage in the final audition I was like ‘I really want this part’. Then I thought ‘I’d actually really want to see this show as well’. Luckily I got it.
Your performance in the show is completely fearless and energetic. How do you not just collapse by the end of it?
I do! We added two new songs in the last two days in to the encore. As we were choreographing that I just fell on the floor for a laugh and the choreographer loved it. She said ‘I love this, keep it in’ and I was so happy to be able to sing a song lying on the floor because I was absolutely shattered. You just have to perform and you get a buzz off the audience, which gives it the energy. Yesterday I ran up a wall and it wasn’t until the musical director said ‘did you run up a wall?’ and I said ‘oh yes I did!’ It wasn’t like I’d planned to do that. I just ran up the wall for the craic. It’s the buzz and the cheer you get from the audience. The next thing I want to do is stage dive so I’m planning that for some point. I’m hoping I have the right crowd to stage dive on.
You could have done that during the performance last night as the crowd were on their feet for most of the show…
Argh! I know, I know! I’ve got to take my moment and shout ‘catch me!’
We were incredibly impressed how you kept up the energy throughout the performance. It must be very vocally demanding too?
It is, it is! It’s like anything. If I was a runner I’d be looking after my feet and with your voice you just have to look after yourself. I don’t go out, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’m eating a lot of healthy food and drinking a lot of water. I do warm-ups just before the show and after the show I do a warm down. I have a lot of honey and hot drinks. When it’s your job you have to just look after your instrument.
There’s a scene in the show where you strip down to your underpants at the front of the stage. Were you nervous about that?
Do you know how that happened? It was always in the script and the line says ‘Deco changes into his suit’ and that was it. I was thinking ‘oh I’ll just go somewhere or go off stage and change’. When we were rehearsing Jamie Lloyd, the director, would go ‘ok Killian you’ll just change into your suit at this point’ and I’d go ‘yeah, yeah’ and everyone would do their own thing and change. I said ‘where am I changing?’ and he said ‘right here, front and centre’. I said ‘right here?’ and he replied’ yes’. I was like ‘I’m going to be down to my underwear right here?’ and he goes ‘yes’. I remember he had these smiling eyes looking at me as if to say ‘go on, do it’. I said ‘I’ll get one up on you. Can I get Superman underwear?’ and he went ‘yes you can’. That was amazing and that’s how we have Superman underwear at that point. I was thinking it’s 1986 so he will have Superman underwear so I love that they got that in. That gives me the confidence to do it I think.
In the show The Commitments bicker and fight a lot but it’s clear that there’s a love and a fondness for each other. Is that how it is with the cast as well?
Yeah absolutely. We’re all friends and we’re all getting on a bus and doing these promo gigs. We’re all doing it together whereas with other shows like The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom would be doing the promo. With us it’s the 10 members of the band so we are being kept together and hanging out a lot. A lot of these people are making their West End debuts so it’s lovely to see how excited and how happy they are just going on this journey. If there were ever bickering backstage the gorgeous thing about this show is that we get to vent onstage. If you don’t like anybody then you can just save it for the stage. We just shout anything at each other and that’s how we get it all out (laughs).
We loved the bickering scenes on stage where it all descended into a loud, raucous mess…
That’s the thing that people are absolutely loving. That’s all improvised. In the script it just says ‘they argue’ and at that point the whole band just tear into each other and start shouting things like ‘don’t point your finger at me, I swear to God I’ll put your head through a wall’. We say anything to each other. Myself and Joe Woolmer – people say he headbutts me at one point and it’s so real – but every time we get that reaction from the audience we give each other a high five and say ‘that was an amazing headbutt’ whilst I’ve got fake blood all over my face.
You mentioned earlier that you’re a fan of the book and the film. How much did you refer back to those when you were preparing to play Deco?
I read the book two weeks before I started the workshop which was two years ago. I’ve seen the film before but when I got the role for the show I read the book again. I was pretty familiar with it and I remember that I always had the book in my pocket during rehearsals. I’d highlight pages when I saw something. There are a lot of things they couldn’t do in the movie that we could do in the play. For example in the book when Deco is getting so comfortable with singing he’d wear his favourite tracksuit trousers. He’d walk around with a hot towel and eat honey from the jar. These were tiny little details that we were able to put into the play. It’s lovely when a fan of the book stands at the stage door and says ‘I saw the tracksuit trousers’ or ‘I saw the honey’. It just makes you give yourself a little backstory.
You even managed to sing at points with a mouth full of food…
That’s something I absolutely love doing – singing with a bag of chips. That’s one of the best notes I ever heard from the award-winning director Jamie Lloyd. ‘Killian sing through the chips!’ Amazing! I’m going to take that to my grave. That’s the best note a director has ever given me ever.
It sounds like some kind of life philosophy that doesn’t it? ‘Sing through the chips!’
Yeah! The stage manager was actually calculating what I eat and drink in one show. I eat a plate of spaghetti, a full éclair, a bag of chips, I drink two full pints of non-alcoholic beer…it’s a bit mental. Then I have to strip off into my underwear and I’m like ‘come on!’ (laughs)
You don’t get much time for toilet breaks either do you?
No! I started to sort of set them into my routine of the show. I think after this scene I can get a 2 minute pee break so I’m working those in now.
The Commitments is booking until the end of January. Are you going to fit anything else in before the show finishes or are you solely concentrating on the show?
No. It’s The Commitments completely now and we’re still trying to find out feet with it. As you get new audiences you’re trying to work out how to adjust so how is a Tuesday night audience different from a Saturday night audience? My full focus is on The Commitments.
You’ve played a lot of great stage roles in your career to date. How does playing Deco compare to those?
Deco is arrogant and crude whereas as I’ve played Enjolras in Les Mis who is a heroic revolutionary leader and I’ve played Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera who is an aristocrat so well to do characters from well brought up backgrounds. I played Tony in Billy Elliot who was more along the acting side of things as opposed to musical theatre. He was very hot-headed and strong and knew what he wanted. He was always supporting the family. Deco is more along those lines but on the comedy end of things. It’s just completely different to anything I’ve done before. As an actor it’s the best compliment I can get if people say ‘you were Raoul’ after seeing me playing Deco. That’s what you want.
The Commitments is playing now at the Palace Theatre and is booking until 26th January 2014. For more information and tickets go to http://www.thecommitmentslondon.com/