MusicalReviewSouth East

The Who’s Tommy – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Music & Lyrics: Pete Townsend
Book: Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff
Additional Music & Lyrics: John Entwistle & Keith Moon
Director: Kerry Michael
Musical Director: Robert Hyman
Reviewer: Glen Pearce

The Who’s Tommy has always been something of a concept for directors to mould into their own. Sadly though concept doesn’t always translate into form.

Pete Townsend’s rock opera was originally created as a concept album in 1969, a star-studded film in 1975 followed by two stage productions, the first in 1979 and then a heavily revised version for Broadway in 1993 that transferred to London three years later. Each staging has been revised and revisited and, as such, there’s no real definitive version of the concept. So it is with The New Wolsey Theatre’s Ramps on the Moon latest coproduction, a radical reinterpretation that combines deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers.

A show about the ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ kid seems an ideal project for this consortia and shows such as Reasons To Be Cheerful and The Threepenny Opera have demonstrated the ability of accessible theatre to challenge our preconceived notions of theatre.

Sadly, in Kerry Michael’s surprisingly flaccid production, the mixed ability casting seems to be little more than a gimmick and actually detracts from the storytelling.

Michael has taken a radically different reading of the story here, going against the view that Tommy’s deafness, dumbness and blindness is caused as a reaction to the violent death of his father. Michael’s casting of a deaf actor (William Grint) as Tommy somewhat muddles the story. Grint gives a mesmerising performance, a quiet intensity that commands attention; however, the casting makes it hard to understand the trauma and subsequent ‘recovery’ Tommy makes.

The decision to have other actors sing the role of Tommy and his Mother, while in keeping with the casting concept, is a further distraction and, while sung well (especially the vocal powerhouse of Shekinah McFarlane as the singing voice of Mother), it makes it hard to build an emotional connection with the characters.

With a few notable exceptions;  the aforementioned McFarlane, Max Runham as Tommy’s father Captain Walker and Natasha Lewis’s full-throated hawker, the ensemble tends to struggle with Townsend’s rock score, lacking both vocal clarity and energy. Vocally they are not helped by a sound mix that focuses on over-amplifying the band, causing reliance on the onstage surtitling for many of the lyrics.

It’s telling that the only musical numbers to get applauded mid-show are those sung by the Acid Queen, including a soulful new number penned especially for this production by Townsend. Peter Straker demonstrates the attack and verve this score needs yet, even despite his belting renditions, the drag portrayal of the Acid Queen is yet another gimmick shoehorned in without any real reason.

Performances and muddled concept aside, the real Achilles heel of this production is a woeful lack of energy. Scenery is trundled on and off at a leaden pace, wobbly flats are pulled in and out slowly and the whole thing feels like it needs a shot in the arm of something the Acid Queen could probably provide.

Previous work by The New Wolsey Theatre, Graeae and others have shown the potential to cast a new light on disability. Sadly this production of The Who’s Tommy uses disability and accessibility as a gimmick rather than a true dramatic force for change. The chance to hear Townsend’s legendary score live is a rare treat but, far from being a pinball wizard, this production of Tommy never reaches its full potential.

Runs until 15 April 2017 then tours | Image: Mike Kwasniak

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