Pros: Some of the best rock songs ever written being played live.
Cons: The narrative is thin on the ground.
The Who’s 1969 concept album Tommy is one of the definitive rock releases of modern music. It was followed by the movie version in 1975, before it was turned into a fully-fledged musical in 1992. What we have onstage now is more of a play with music, with the concept finally fully realised.
For those that have been asleep during the past fifty years, Tommy tells the story of the withdrawn ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who retreats to the world of pinball to nurse his post-war trauma. The pinball machine becomes the channel that brings him worldwide fame, resulting in an outpouring of teenage hysteria and the general public projecting their Messiah dependencies onto him.
A Broadway show this production is not. The entire play is clearly put together on a two-string budget. Yet, it is all the more endearing for it, because it highlights the commitment of all the creatives involved. Nik Corrall’s set, for example, excels in that it suggests a time and place rather than merely illustrate it. His choice to leave out the pinball machine, which is so central to the story, allows choreographer Mark Smith to stage possibly the most exciting dance number in the entire production. Corrall’s set helps to propel the story along, even though the narrative is thin on the ground. The trouble is that transferring what is admittedly a strong thematic concept into a musical storyline is difficult at best. There are a lot of jazz hands and big musical sequences on display here, but the music we’re hearing is rock. The marriage of the two is sometimes awkward to sit through.
An example is John Barr’s performance as the creepy Uncle Ernie, in which Barr turns the terrifying Fiddle About, a song about child abuse, into an almost comical performance. I’m not sure if this is for the audience’s benefit or his own. The number is supposed to be scary and uncomfortable to sit through; it shouldn’t be alienating, but it should be painful. This is where I think director Michael Strassen’s production does not succeed. Tommy poses so many questions and discusses so many ideas, yet it seems the more uncomfortable aspects are glossed over to make it more palatable for the audience.
This is literally a show about darkness. About Tommy’s lack of vision and his parents’ inability to see the effects of the trauma they’ve inflicted upon their son. It’s also about society’s refusal to see things as they really are, turning Tommy into a god because he is in essence better at something that most of us can have no hope in excelling in. Fundamentally, it’s a critique on modern society and the vaccuousness in which we all operate. Strassen has done a solid job of putting together the pieces of this puzzle. And of course, there are other upsides. Pete Townshend’s lyrics are unquestionably great, the commitment of the performers is undeniable and the energy of the ensemble never falters. Barr and Giovanni Spano as Cousin Kevin are the strongest performers on stage. Although their characters are vile, it’s dazzling to behold when actors relish in their own creations’ unpleasantness. Miranda Wilford as Mrs Walker is very touching as the most likeable character onstage and Ashley Birchall puts in a marathon performance as Tommy.
Musical director Kevin Oliver Jones has put a small but talented team together to play the brilliant score. However, it’s difficult to sit through some of the best rock songs ever written being played live without the option to crowd surf or dance in the theatre. This is why next time I’ll listen to my original pressing of Tommy at home rather than recreate the live experience again.
Authors: Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Director: Michael Strassen
Box Office: 020 8858 7755
Booking Link: http://ticketing.greenwichtheatre.org.uk/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=52083
Booking Until: 23 August 2015