The Who’s Tommy started life as a concept album, with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, catapulting the band to mainstream fame on its release in 1969. In 1975, it formed the basis for a film starring Elton John and Tina Turner and in 1993 it reached the Broadway stage. In 1996, it descended on London’s West End in a vibrant, colourful and high-tech production starring Paul Keating, Nigel Harman and Kim Wilde. What struck me immediately back then, and kept me returning, was the sheer genius of the music. The show is completely sung-through with little dialogue, so naturally Townshend’s intricate, varied and compelling score is the driving force, carrying the action and charting the twists, turns, ups and downs of the characters’ lives, emotions and dilemmas like some kind of out-of-control rollercoaster.
That the score alone is a thrilling ride is naturally a fantastic starting point for anyone looking to stage this. The large-scale attempts have been few and far between over the years, so any new production is welcome and this intelligent reimagining by Michael Strassen at the Greenwich Theatre this month does not disappoint on any level.
Yes, the story is pretty ridiculous. Young boy endures a horrible childhood trauma, goes blind, deaf and dumb, somehow becomes an expert pinball player then achieves world fame and media domination when his mother finally works out how to ‘cure’ him. It smacks of the psychedelia of the day it was written, of course, and this only provides further scope for creativity and vision. Strassen explores all of the opportunities, employing striking, yet often simple symbolism and imagery throughout, bringing a stylistic, artsy feel to proceedings and forcing us to make connections we hadn’t made before.
Mark Smith’s choreography compliments the direction perfectly, his ballet sequences heightening the innocence, purity and beauty Tommy personifies and coupling nicely with the all-in-white cast. There are some interesting Fosse-style and Village People-esque moments thrown in now and again too, which all add nicely to the entertainment.
Ashley Birchall gives an impeccable portrayal of Tommy and is mesmerising throughout with his deft, graceful movements and soaring falsetto. The intimacy of this theatre allows the audience to experience his disabilities and resulting pain and anguish close up, and Birchall effortlessly handles the contrast between these and the unstoppable gravitas he embodies when he regains his senses and unleashes his pent-up animosity on his parents. John Barr’s Uncle Ernie is everything the character should be, combining the epitome of sleaze with some impressive vocal gymnastics and Giovanni Spano’s calm, collected, quiff-bearing Cousin Kevin is a joy to behold. The four-piece band, under the immaculate musical direction of Kevin Oliver Jones, does perfect justice to the score.
Aside from one or two technical glitches and a bit of mis-casting in places, there is really very little to criticise here and this is a production that will not only appeal to existing fans but undoubtedly win new ones.
Photos: Ashley Birchall as Tommy with the Company. By Claire Bilyard.