The new production of Tommy which has just opened at The Greenwich Theatre, with its incredible choreography, simple staging, and triple-threat cast, really is the sort of event which renews your faith in the dramatic arts.
Unless you actually happen to own The Who’s 1969 concept (double) album ‘Tommy’, or were lucky enough to catch the 1996 London stage production the chances are that, like me, your only exposure to the show is going to be via the 1975 film directed by Ken Russell. Although the film has a certain baroque charm, it didn’t prove to be a springboard, and Tommy didn’t find a theatrical audience until 1992 when Des McAnuff, then the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego California, gave the book some much needed re-shaping to make it more accessible, earning himself a co-author credit and, the following year, a Broadway transfer.
It is this version of Tommy – or something very like it – that has just opened in Greenwich, and with one caveat that I’ll come to later, this is a first rate production which deserves to be seen.
The show opens in 1940. It is wartime, and Captain Walker of the RAF (James Sinclair with an exceptionally fine voice) and his new young wife (Miranda Wilford, who too has an impressive ability in both musical theatre and rock idioms) are expecting their first child. Walker’s plane disappears over enemy territory, and he is lost, presumed dead, leaving the young Mrs Walker to raise her son alone.
Five years later and Mrs Walker has found herself a new man to help bring up the now-five year old son, Tommy (Ashley Birchall, who doesn’t get the opportunity fully to show us his range and versatility until Act Two, but it’s well worth the wait) however, Captain Walker returns having been held captive, still very much alive, to find his wife in the arms of another man and, in a fit of jealousy, pulls out his service revolver and shoots him, the whole event being witnessed reflected in a mirror by the young Tommy, the shock turning him (somewhat implausibly) ‘deaf, dumb and blind’.
Captain Walker is charged with murder, but gets off, leaving his family with a heavily disabled child who soon attracts the attention of his paedophile wicked Uncle Ernie (the wonderfully versatile John Barr giving a flesh-creepingly good turn channelling Jimmy Savile) who abuses the child seemingly with impunity.
Tommy goes off to school and faces the inevitable bullying, principally from his Cousin Kevin (the swaggeringly macho Giovanni Spano whose gravity-defying balletic leaps and bounds seem at times impossible) however, the boy has somehow managed to learn how to use a pinball machine, and starts to gain a cadre of fans.
In Act Two Tommy’s parents continue in their search for a cure for their son who by now has an army of devoted followers, but when Tommy smashes the mirror in which he saw his father kill, and fully regains his faculties, his status is lifted to that of a spiritual leader. Tommy’s wicked Uncle Ernie tries to cash in on the young man’s fame, and his Cousin Kevin undergoes a conversion, becoming not only a fan but also Tommy’s head of security.
Following the death of one of his followers Tommy comes to realise that the interest the public have in him is unhealthy, and he is reunited with his family from whom he had become estranged.
As I said, the cast (and casting) is first rate, and well dressed by Nik Corrall who also designed the minimalistic ‘rock concert’ style set, which works very well, to show off David Howe’s lighting, and Mark Smith’s energetic and challenging choreography which seems paced just about perfectly for this type of show.
It isn’t hard to read the plot as being semi-autobiographical of the rock-star writers, and my only grievances are with Pete Townshend and his later collaborator Des McAnuff. Rock Opera (which is what this is) can work very well if the story is strong enough to carry you over the inevitable deficiencies which ‘Rock’ as an idiom inherently has. Townsends storytelling however, even as improved my McAnuff, still isn’t strong enough to be particularly dramatically engaging, which is going to be the primary problem which any prospective director faces. Fortunately under Michael Strassen’s guidance there’s enough going on onstage, and it’s so well done, that that doesn’t really matter.