Director: Kerry Michael
Music & Lyrics: Pete Townsend
Musical Director: Robert Hyman
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
When Pete Townsend first created the “deaf, dumb and blind” hero, Tommy, he probably intended his disabilities to be symbolic. In the hands of New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, they are far more than this, as a cast and creative team which combines equal numbers of deaf, disabled and non-disabled people give a fresh interpretation to the iconic rock opera. Not least by presenting a perspective on attitudes to disability which compare and contrast those of 2017 with those of the post-war generation. Stigma comes in many different forms, from paternalism and condescension to the erosion of personal dignity through a punitive benefits regime.
The storyline of ‘Tommy” is probably less well known than many of the classic rock anthems which provide the musical drive to the work. Tommy is a war baby who witnesses his father’s murder and withdraws into his own world, neither seeing, hearing or speaking. He suffers abuse and bullying but finds redemption in playing pinball. His success transforms him into a cult leader, exploiting his followers until a further epiphany restores his humanity. Judged as a plot line it is confused and confusing, but so are many classical operas. Writer Pete Townsend indulged many of his pet obsessions, whether they hung together consistently or not.
“Tommy” was never originally written for the stage. Like other contemporary recordings, it experimented with some classical music forms to push the boundaries of pop culture. Keith West’s single “Excerpt from a Teenage Opera” probably led the way in 1967, two years before The Who produced “Tommy” as an album. A series of musical set pieces, it never provided a coherent narrative, but presented a series of characters and tableaux illustrative of the life journey undertaken by Tommy. It helped that Pete Townsend could write instantly memorable, stirring, lyrical pop-rock tunes and was one of the most intelligent creative thinkers to emerge from the sixties.
The creative forces behind “The Who’s Tommy” have allowed themselves considerable freedom with the original material, interlacing songs and musical themes in complex weaves, allowing echoes to re-surface and give new emotional weight to some of Tommy’s backstory. The highlight of this treatment is certainly the ghost figure of Tommy’s dead father, played by Max Runham, who reappears at critical moments to urge his son to “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me”, adding depth and resonance to key scenes, and providing a connecting touchstone to the story.
The staging is simple, inventive and flexible. Set walls move to create appropriate space, props and furniture glide on and off smoothly, projections are used to anchor the milestones of the story, and a high-level text display makes sure that every word is captured. BSL signing is used by the actors throughout but is blended so well with character movement as to enhance rather than distract. Special effects are stunningly effective, although used sparingly: Perspex chairs light up like pinball cushions; mirrors smash with pin-sharp precision; flares ignite to climax the excitement. Costumes track the period from 1941 to the mid-sixties accurately but imperceptibly.
The challenge here is to turn a flawed masterpiece rock album into a coherent musical performance, and this has largely been achieved. The musicianship is of a very high order, not only from the four-piece outfit led by Robert Hyman, who sustain the rock charge throughout, but from the multi-talented cast who contribute horn sections, flute, and even a harmonica, when not acting their socks off. Not to be outdone, several of the musicians also take key cameo roles in the action. Ensemble playing rarely gets this ensemble.
Mutual support is obviously key to the success of ensemble theatre work, but how much more must this be the case when the performers have such differing abilities? This was so ingrained in the performance that it almost passed without notice. There was an elision between the actors which eroded any observable dependency. Clearly, some actors relied on the voices of others to communicate in song, but this quickly became irrelevant, like the puppeteers in “Warhorse”. It also helped that those actors providing the voices of other characters were also on stage echoing the emotions involved, instead of simply providing a lip-synching service from the sidelines. Shekinah McFarlane merits special mention for her soulful range as Tommy’s mother.
Peter Straker traces his association with “Tommy” back to 1979, and he drools sleaze in quantity into the role of the Acid Queen. Additional songs allow him to imbue the character with some additional dimensions, and he milks every shred from the belting raucous showstoppers the role affords.
The most striking thing about this show is not the diversity of ability on display, but the wealth of multi-disciplinary talent on offer, and the way in which their approach adds a wholly new palette to the 1960’s black & white of the original. That, and the energy to deliver it feeling fresh, new and exciting.
Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Mike Kwasniak