Killian Donnelly has been receiving rave reviews for his portrayal of Deco, the egotistical and bolshy front-man of Roddy Doyle’s new West End musical The Commitments. I recently caught up with him, and was relieved to find little similarity between the actor and his character…

THE COMMITMENTS


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Donnelly was raised in Ireland, where he participated in amateur dramatics. Unlike many West End regulars, he did not follow the standard drama school to agent trajectory: “Someone had seen me in an am dram show in Ireland, and people kept saying to me if you want to go professional you need to move to London. So, I moved over about five years ago. I literally knocked on doors of agents, and one of them got me an audition for Les Mis. I was offered a twelve month contract. I was gobsmacked.”

Since then, he has appeared in other West End shows, playing Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera and Tony in Billy Elliot. On the eve of taking a well deserved holiday to Greece, Donnelly received a phone call from his agent informing him of an audition for a workshop of The Commitments. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? That’s being made into a show?!’ He said, ‘It’s about a young band in …’ I said, ‘Are you mad? I know!’ He said, ‘They want to see you for the role of Dee-koh.’ I was like, ‘IT’S DECO!’ [laughs]. So I went to this audition, and they’d said don’t bring anything from The Commitments movie. I was running late, so, of course, I sang ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Midnight Hour’. But, I got a phone call going, ‘You’ve got it. It’s in three weeks.’ I had to cancel my holiday but, obviously, I had the best craic.”

What happened next? “Two-and-a-half years later I get a phone call saying– at this point I’m in Billy Elliot – they’re auditioning for The Commitments now. I was like, I really need an audition. I’d love to audition for this show. And because I had done the workshop they didn’t need to do a first or second round with me. They just said they’d bring the people they want into the final. But they didn’t tell me that! So I’m looking at people going through the first round and second round and I’m thinking ‘Why haven’t I been seen? Have I done something wrong?!’ But luckily I was told about the final audition, and that was amazing because we got to sing with a live band.”

Based on a book of the same name by Roddy Doyle, The Commitments charts the formation and disintegration of a soul group in 1980s Dublin. Donnelly’s character, Deco, fronts the band, and his narcissism and obstinacy are the source of several disputes within the group. Donnelly acknowledges that Deco is a move away from some of the characters he’s portrayed in the past: “I was always put into the category of an Enjolras in Les Mis or a Raoul in Phantom. I briefly played Tony in Billy Elliot, which I loved, but it seemed that Deco was a completely different character to try my hand at. He’s very arrogant and he’s crude. He’s a loveable prick. It’s amazing how the audience seem to love hating him. I’m adoring it.”

With the exception of Donnelly, the cast of The Commitments is largely made up of previously unknown Irish actors making their West End débuts. He jokes “everyone’s been calling me a veteran, as if I’ve fought in a war”. Nonetheless, he seems to have embraced his new found mother hen identity: “I do sometimes have to give advice when cast members are looking to go out for a pint. I say ‘remember we’ve two shows tomorrow…’ and when they come in with a hangover the next day I’m like ‘Now, look at yeh! Look at yeh!'”

On originating the role of Deco, he muses: “If you’re in the West End in a musical, that’s the biggest thing you can do. And, having done that I’m thinking ‘where do I go from here?’ You’re ticking things off the bucket list. Some day I’d absolutely love to do a spell on Broadway. I’d love to do straight theatre. I did the Les Mis movie last year – I’d love to do more television and film. I also like writing. I’ve written some pantomimes which went on in Ireland and now I’m doing one over here in Norwich this year. There’s always so much more to do.”

Donnelly’s passion and appetite for working spills over into his advice for aspiring actors: “It’s a cliché, but I say – just go for it, and never let anyone put you down or take your dream away from you. I did go through a time when people said, ‘You need a proper job’ or ‘You need to focus on something stronger now and make sure you’re concentrating on something other than acting’, but I never did and I always just went for it. I never let anybody tell me that I can’t do anything. And I love what I do. Get singing lessons. Go train. Keep your head down and concentrate. When you go into an audition, go in with your own idea, never copy your favourite performer. Read the script and do your research. You can never do too much research. If you love it, just keep doing it. It’s the best job in the world.”

The Commitments runs from Tuesdays – Sundays at 7.30 pm (with matinees on Saturday and Sunday) at The Palace Theatre. For more information visit The Commitments website.