William Grint as Tommy with his voices, Julian Capolei, and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan, behind
The Who's Tommy
The release of Tommy 48 years ago was a seminal moment in rock music. Whether it was the first rock opera might be open to debate but it was the first to be billed as such and any rivals for the title are long forgotten. The Who’s Tommy was the real deal.
The deaf, dumb and blind kid was to influence whole generations of rock bands who followed and in this new production at Birmingham Rep Tommy is given another dimension by adding actors with varying degrees of physical disabilities to the cast.
And not only that, every performance has full audio description, surtitle captioning and British Sign Language interpretation for a truly inclusive performance both on and off stage.
The tale is simple, Tommy is born while his father is missing in action, presumed dead, during the war. Mum Nora finds a new lover, Frank, which is fine . . . until dad returns five years later and in a fight with Frank is murdered.
So little traumatised Tommy is told he saw nothing, heard nothing and must say nothing, which he takes literally and it eats into his mind making him an outsider, deaf, dumb and blind to the world until he finds his salvation in pinball – and if you know nothing of Pinball Wizard we must ask what life is like on your planet . . .
Max Runham as Captain Walker. Pictures: Mike Kwasniak
Tommy is played by William Grint, whose voice is provided with some style by Julian Capolei and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan while Nora is played by Donna Mullings, with her voice Shekinah McFarlane singing her songs with some real wellie.
Tommy’s father, Captain Walker is played by seasoned professional Max Runham, who has a fine singing voice, and once murdered, he acts as a spiritual guide to son Tommy until Tommy finds release and can sing I’m Free.
Along the way we meet paedophile Uncle Ernie (Fiddle About), played with a convincing air of lurking evil, always chasing the main chance by Garry Robson, who has become a respected international figure in disability arts.
And then there is Lukus Alexander as Cousin Kevin. Alexander seems too cheerful and friendly to be a bully, but perhaps that is how he gets away with being such a sadist, tormenting Tommy.
Peter Straker as the Acid Queen
There are quacks offering miracle cures, specialists who can find no reason for Tommy’s condition and then the Hawker, a powerful voice from Natasha Lewis, who introduces us to the Acid Queen played in wonderful camp decadence by West End star Peter Straker.
Straker played the narrator in the 1979 West End production and returns with a voice with the power to raise the dead and a new song, penned by Townshend for this production, Acid Queen 2 in the second act.
And then there is the follower who exposes the myth (Tommy’s Holiday Camp) that Frank, Uncle Ernie, Cousin Kevin have built into an industry around Tommy, Sally Simpson, played by Amy Trigg who has beautiful singing voice, clear as a bell, and we feel her despair as she realises, as do the rest of the followers, that they have been conned (We’re not gonna take it).
All of which sees Tommy turn inward again (Feel Me, See Me) and a full cast finale of Listening to You.
Tommy does not have the strongest of narratives and certainly not the easiest to act out, so the cast do well to keep it on track. It started life as a concept album and was and is all about The Who and Pete Townshend’s music and the band at the rear of the stage, with Steve Simmonds on bass, Tony Qunta on lead guitar and Adam Langstaff drums under musical director Robert Hyman, are excellent.
They manage to be loud enough to ensure no one will nod off yet are controlled enough not to overwhelm the dialogue. Other cast members weigh in on brass, harmonica, and guitars in a lively production directed by Kerry Michael.
Neil Irish’s set and costumes are simple but effective, with screens to represent doctors and shiny metal walls which open and close to change the perspective of the stage.
The wonders of LEDs come to the fore as well with chairs and a pinball machine that light up and patterns created on the floor. It is a big cast, 22 strong, and a fast moving show, and although it doesn’t have the raw edge or grit of The Who’s celebrated performances at the likes of Woodstock or the Isle of Wight, it retains enough to show why it is such an influential landmark in rock culture.
Maybe it is the pedant in me, or just a lifetime as a journalist who wonders why the surtitles display such a cavalier approach to apostrophes in an otherwise excellent service.
But perhaps the final word should come from Townshend who has shown great support and rewrote one song and added another to the production. He said: “When I heard there was a new planned production of Tommy, I was pleased of course. But when I heard they planned to do a production featuring actors with disabilities of various kinds, that will actually throw new light on the original story, I became very excited. This is a totally new adventure, and really does refer back to my original story in which a young man, disabled by extreme trauma, finds his way to some kind of spiritual place because he can FEEL music. I can’t wait to see it.” You can feel it at the REP to 27-05-17
18-05-17Selection of Songs from Tommy
This is a New Wolsley Theatre Ipswich co-production with Ramps on the Moon