Music & Lyrics: Pete Townsend
Book: Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff
Additional Music & Lyrics: John Entwistle & Keith Moon
Director: Kerry Michael
Reviewer: Dave Smith
It’s nearly 50 years since The Who released Tommy, one of two concept albums by the band (along with Quadrophenia) that helped turn them from Mod favourites to genuine rock icons. The plot concerns the life of Tommy Walker, who becomes deaf, dumb and blind as a result of trauma caused by witnessing his mother’s lover kill his father. His isolation leaves him open to abuse, but gradually he discovers an ability to use an enhanced sense of touch to become an expert pinball player. He eventually regains his senses and briefly becomes the head of a pseudo-religious movement, before losing control of his followers and retreating once more into his inner self.
This new production boasts new material specially written by Pete Townshend, and is a co-production between Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, who are seeking to achieve a step change in the employment and artistic opportunities for disabled performers and creative teams while encouraging participating organisations to enable accessibility to become a central part of their thinking and aesthetics. The cast comprises 22 disabled and non-disabled performers and musicians, with the main role of Tommy being taken by deaf actor William Grint.
The main problem with the show is the show itself – the plot is more than a little ludicrous and whisper it quietly, but apart from a few standout moments (Pinball Wizard, The Acid Queen and the repeated refrain of See Me, Feel Me), unless you love The Who and are approaching with a fan’s eye view, the songs and music aren’t much to get excited about either. These are major hindrances for a musical.
Despite all that, this is a production worth getting out to see for a number of reasons.
Partly that’s because the version presented here manages to include elements of the historical disabled experience, while a short sequence at the start reminds us that we haven’t progressed as far as we might like to think. It doesn’t entirely make sense of the original story – the second half in particular is so very late 1960s – but it does at least provide a more worthwhile context.
Secondly, the creative team have devised multiple techniques – principally surtitles (unfortunately a touch unstable at times for this performance), audio description and, most impressively of all, sign language imaginatively and brilliantly incorporated into both the plot and the choreography – to ensure every performance is fully accessible without ever getting even slightly in the way of the show itself.
Just as importantly, the casting reflects an equally inclusive approach. Most audiences are now used to seeing black actors in roles where being black is not the story of the character, or where historically a white actor would naturally have been cast. The same cannot be said for disabled actors, and one can but hope that shows like this will encourage directors to be less restricted in their thinking when it comes to casting major roles.
Of course, these things, while important, are not of themselves enough to make an enjoyable night in the theatre. Thankfully, the energy and talent on show manage to keep the audience more than happy. William Grint makes for a convincing and sympathetic Tommy, Alim Jayda is superb as his stepfather Frank, Amy Trigg impresses as the adoring Sally Simpson and Shekinah McFarlane contributes stand-out vocals as the voice of Tommy’s mother Nora.
The bravery and boldness of director Kerry Michael’s whole approach deserve the highest praise, while Mark Smith’s exuberant choreography ensures that while the story may lack cohesion, there’s no lack of spectacle to fully engage the audience.
Runs until 29 April 2017 | Image: Mike Kwasniak