A strong commitment: Deco wins over the West End

Meath man Killian Donnelly, now a West End veteran, is starring in ‘The Commitments’. London audiences get it, he says, although some of the language has had to be toned down

Killian Donnelly, who plays the lead in the musical of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments, is settling into life in the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London's West End.

"Today I bought a throw for my couch. I never decorate rooms, never have," says the languid Donnelly, who has received rave reviews for his performance as Deco. "We're going to be here for a while. Might as well get a telly, a fruit bowl," he laughs.

Just a few nights earlier, Donnelly had stood in front of a packed house, brought to its feet by a series of blues numbers. Then, with a touch of arrogance, or perhaps just the air of a man who knows the answer to his question, he called out: “Do you want more?” The answer was not long in coming.

More than 20 years ago, the film of The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker, had marked a rite of passage in Ireland and offered a rare international stage for the Dublin vernacular.

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Today, the picture that many sitting in the seats of the Palace Theatre have of Dublin, or even Ireland, is likely influenced by Brendan O'Carroll's sitcom Mrs Brown's Boys as much as anything else.

Maybe that show has helped this latest version of The Commitments. Everyone involved is keen not to "filter down the language or the way that we speak so fast", says Donnelly. "When you hear [O'Carroll] say to his son, 'f*** off', and hit the back of his head, it gets a huge laugh. The fecks and f***s of how Irish people go on have been seen by a British audience.

“When they see it on stage that just appeals to them, I guess,” he says, although it seems the language on opening night was a little too blue for London’s tastes. “The swear words have been toned down a bit in order to make it [suitable] for a broader audience,” says Donnelly, who sings the blues but speaks Meath.

"The changes were made after just the first night. That is what previews are for. [There was] feedback saying it was a bit much. As far as content goes, we are having no complaints that people didn't 'get' anything; people are getting it, there's no doubt about that.

"We had 10 Canadians in, and afterwards they were saying, 'You have got to bring this over to Canada, it is absolutely fantastic'," he says, adopting the accent.

The 29-year-old from Kilmessan, near Navan, is already a veteran of the West End, with successful periods in Les Misérables, Billy Elliott and The Phantom of the Opera under his belt.

Donnelly’s involvement with musicals began as a 14-year-old with an amateur musical society in Navan.“That was just for something to do at weekends: rehearse for three months two nights a week and then put on a show for a week. It was about the social end of it, really.”

Reasons for his rise

In contrast to many in London’s theatre world, Donnelly has risen almost without professional training on the back of talent, luck and not a little charm.

Encouraged to think beyond Ireland, he came to London in 2008 with a list of 20 theatrical agents in his pocket. Only one of them replied to his letter, but one was enough. An audition with Les Misérables followed, where he won a place as "a swing" – one who acts as cover for a host of ensemble roles.

"It is about having something that makes you stand out. With Les Mis they just liked the fact that I was an Irish fella," he says. "Everyone wore black for their Les Mis audition." Donnelly, however, came in wearing green combat trousers, white runners and a T-shirt. "I didn't know I had to dress up for an audition. Being Irish helps, because instantly I have a difference."

In place as a cover, Donnelly didn’t have to wait long for his chance. “On opening night I was on because a guy went over on his ankle. I was delighted,” he says, with a half-embarrassed laugh.

By the second year, he had another 12-month contract, plus responsibility for covering the three main male roles.

By year three, he held one of those roles, Enjolras, for himself. "Les Mis was really my training. My voice became stronger. I learned how to sing with the diaphragm, rather than through the throat, and breathing techniques. I just mastered my craft, really, by going to singing lessons."


Learning curve in London
The early experience of London highlighted the gap between the amateur and the professional worlds. "At home you'd sing for a week and you'd go on the pints afterwards and have the craic. Here, it was really about clocking in and clocking out. It became a job. I had to get that into my head really, really quickly."

Besides experience, London brought blunt advice. “Someone said to me that I had a great voice, but the technique was all over the place, meaning I wouldn’t last eight shows. I would sing great songs that sound lovely, but on day two, or day three, my voice would fall, it would settle. I would not be singing from my belly any more.”

Lessons with a singing teacher followed. “I never warmed up. I’d go on stage and just belt it out. I would be dying by the end of the gig. Now I do a warm-up and a warm-down. The things that I laughed at before, I now do. You start on the lowest note to your highest for a warm-up. Your larynx is raised. I am talking to you like this, but after the show my voice will be like this [he rises an octave]. You need to drop it down a bit.”

His early days gigging in Cavan, Kilmessan and at Blooms Hotel in Dublin taught him stagecraft, particularly on a weekend night, when some in his audience would have too much to drink.

“On a Saturday night you’d have drunk lads coming up, saying, ‘Sing such-and- such’. We had backing tracks and guitars, so if we didn’t have the backing track we didn’t have the song. So they would try to sing it for you, by pulling the mic off you. Ridiculous, but it actually gave me a lot of confidence to control the mic.”

The experience has stood to him. “In this show I jump into the audience and put my arm around strangers and get them to sing. It is about just going in with confidence. Otherwise, they’ll completely rip the mic off you,” he says, remembering an incident in the stalls from a few weeks ago when a man in the audience became a little too enthusiastic.

“I went, ‘All you want to do . . .’ He ripped the mic off me and went ‘Ride, Sally, ride’. I went, ‘Give me the mic back, please’,” Donnelly says, his tone suddenly darker.

For now, the show’s place on Shaftesbury Avenue seems secure. “It rattles along and you don’t even realise that it is over. The music sticks in your head. It ticks all the right boxes for a great night’s entertainment.”

Shaftesbury Avenue can be a staging post, not an end, he says. “I can see it having legs and going off on tour everywhere. I think it would do so well on Broadway.”

The prospect excites him. “Broadway has its own audience and they go to new shows. If it ever goes to Broadway, I’m going. I’ll buy my own ticket,” he says, delighted at the prospect.


The Commitments is at the Palace Theatre, London, thecommitmentslondon.com