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Three young men dancing in front of a statue

The Who’s Tommy – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Music & Lyrics: Pete Townsend

Book: Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff

Additional Music & Lyrics: John Entwistle & Keith Moon

Director: Kerry Michael

Reviewer:  John Kennedy

Described as the Rock Musical reborn for a new generation there may well be a smattering of the My Generation here tonight who heard it first time round. The essential summertime news circulating in 1969 was that The Who were about to release their opus magnum – a Rock Opera. Critics collapsed in disdain at its sheer pretension. It was either that or, ‘Getting’ your s**t together in the country, Man!’ They’d already defined the concept album gig with the self-parodying, salacious The Who Sell Out with Roger Daltry’s food-hygiene-challenging bath of baked beans concept sleeve cover. (Already, embryonic Tommy riffs can be found on closing tracks Rael 1/2.)

The mythology of the washout Woodstock Festival was further repackaged as three days of love, peace and music with the 1970 release of Michael Wadleigh’s triple-split-screen extravaganza. Two acts defined both the apotheosis and looming nemesis of the respective decades – Hendrix’s eviscerating Star Spangled Banner and The Who’s marathon set-buster See Me, Feel Me. Lou Reizner’s star-studded orchestral adaptation followed in 1972 and, for good measure, Ken Russell splattered his iconoclastic, lysergic mayhem across cinema screens with a 1975 film version.

Tonight, there’s a live band tucked away back on a cabaret stage-riser and ‘typewriter’ font captions provide a parallel narrative with decidedly detailed emphasis. While the songs remain the same they now become vintage wines decanted into reimagined vessels of vibrant and startling new contexts. Signing for the deaf, embedded audio descriptions, vocal and singing actors seamlessly work in tandem with their non-speaking partners. Julian Capolei/Matthew Jacobs-Morgan duet as Tommy (William Grint).

It would be a brave soul indeed who chooses to prioritise the scene-stealer for tonight’s show in terms of downright diva decadence and bravado brio. Maybe Shekinah McFarlane, who voices and sings for Tommy’s mother Nora? Or vamp fatale, voodoo decadent drag Acid Queen, Peter Straker? That man has sin stiletto stamped and stitched in barbed wire across the very sinews of his rotten heart – the audience adore him. A poignant and perceptive interpretation of Tommy’s trauma is played out through the recurring tableau of his father’s ghost (Max Runham) revisiting him in pristine white military uniform. The Guardian Angel symbolism suggestive while shrewdly eschewing kitsch.  Not so guarding of Tommy’s welfare is wicked Uncle Ernie, (Garry Robson). Avuncular, corrupt, wheelchair bound, his baby-sitting forays into Tommy’s already nightmare-soaked self-blaming guilt about his father’s death unfold grotesquely. The spot-lit hand gestured ‘dumb-show’ miming Ernie’s Fiddling About grates with unsettling brilliance. Hats off indeed to set and costume Designer, Neil Irish.

Tommy’s revelatory pinball wizardry ‘miracle cure’ and subsequent messianic milk and Hippy honey exploited promises to his delusional disciple faithful have brittle, contemporary resonance. Who will tell the Emperor he has no clothes when his deafness becomes his only remaining silent sanctuary? The‘Best Deaf, Dumb & Blind Boy Awards’ Oscars parody spoof at Tommy’s Holiday Camp riffs off on numerous tired tropes and insidious prejudices differently able people experience every day. Tommy’s idolatry manifests its apotheosis in a grotesque statue – recollections of cult Elvis, together with Michael Jackson’s hideous HIStory vanity implosions simmer disturbingly.

This fissile, visceral grabs-you-by-the-ears, witty and gritty damnably self-confident production leaps off the stage with punch-on-the-nose polished panache. It sets the bar for any future adaptations so high it would need a helium stuffed kangaroo on steroids to even grasp at its originality. It’s not perfect because on leaving there’d be no sense of wanting even more. Ridiculously sensational, thoroughly recommended.

Runs until 27 may 2017 | Image: Mike Kwasniak

Music & Lyrics: Pete Townsend Book: Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff Additional Music & Lyrics: John Entwistle & Keith Moon Director: Kerry Michael Reviewer:  John Kennedy Described as the Rock Musical reborn for a new generation there may well be a smattering of the My Generation here tonight who heard it first time round. The essential summertime news circulating in 1969 was that The Who were about to release their opus magnum - a Rock Opera. Critics collapsed in disdain at its sheer pretension. It was either that or, ‘Getting’ your s**t together in the country, Man!’ They’d already defined the concept album gig with the self-parodying, salacious The…

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The Reviews Hub Score

Ridiculously sensational

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.