Review – The Who’s Tommy

The Who’s Tommy – music and lyrics Pete Townsend, Book Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff

‘Tommy’ started out as a rock opera/concept album in 1969 written by Pete Townsend for The Who. It then became a movie and a musical – changing and developing as it went along. But it is in many respects of its time – and the storyline is in a lot of ways very disturbing as it looks at disability and child abuse. Ramps on the Moon is a major project developed between five main producing theatres on the back of original work from the New Wolsey Theatre/Graeae Theatre collaborations including the brilliant ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ and ‘The Threepenny Opera’.

The idea is to produce a major new work involving deaf and disabled actors every year. The first of these was Gogal’s ‘The Government Inspector’ – a production I both enjoyed and admired. This year about £1 million of funding has been put into the revival and a major tour of ‘Tommy’. But was this the right choice of production?

The basic storyline focuses on the birth and development of a young boy whose father, Captain Walker, seems to have been lost during WW2. His mother remarries – only to have her husband turn up out of the blue. During the resultant fight Walker is killed by the new husband, a trauma which Tommy witnesses and subsequently causes him to become deaf, dumb and blind. The play then follows his life through the years from 1940 onwards through each decade as he is subject to abuse by his uncle, bullying by a cousin and invasive tests by specialists. He in the end finds his release by becoming king of the pinball machines.

There are obvious reasons why this would have seemed a good choice as a deaf/ disabled production. The large cast of 22 are involved in a story which focuses on how to overcome disability – and gives much scope for filling the stage with characters and belting out the music.

The stage is simply set with two moving metal frames containing entrances and exits. Unusually for New Wolsey productions – for the majority of the time the band are at the back of the stage creating the music rather than playing multiple parts in between instrumentals. William Grint plays Tommy as mainly a helpless observer of his own misfortunes – his part being sung powerfully by Matthew Jacobs-Morgan and Julian Capolei. Donna Mullings is a fiery Nora, his mother, her singing voice supplied by the extremely talented Shekinah McFarlane. Max Runham stood out both in acting and musical ability as the dead father Captain Walker. And Peter Straker was magnificent  – if extremely creepy – as the Acid Queen.

The difference with this and ‘The Government Inspector’ was that in the latter you could forget the actors disabilities as the production was a serious attempt first and foremost to produce a superb version of the play. Deaf/disability definatly came second to the production values. ‘Tommy’ seems to be more an attempt to pack the stage with as many deaf/ disabled performers as possible and given the subject matter therefore make more of an issue of the disabilities rather than the performing talent.

Not that everybody doesn’t make a huge effort – they do. There is a lot of energy in the show – and the songs are well performed if a little loud and strident. But there are no real highs and lows – everything is done at a cracking pace and its all very frenetic and busy.

I am and have always been fully supportive of the efforts to be more inclusive in the theatre. But never at the expense of talent or artistic achievement. If you loved the original album – you’ll enjoy this. If you know nothing about the subject or the musical be prepared to feel a bit uncomfortable. There is a 14+ cut off – and with adult themes there should be adhered to. And be warned – it is very long. Its the type of show where less really could have been more on every level.

Suzanne Hawkes

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