It’s half a century now since The Who’s Pete Townsend compiled a list of all the most devastating things that could possibly happen to one person … and parcelled them up into the very first rock opera. Young Tommy Walker sees his father shot dead. He’s bullied, beaten up and sexually abused, and becomes a deaf, dumb and blind kid….whose only form of communication is through a pin ball machine. And yet he becomes an icon of his age.
I’d hate to consider Townsend’s state of mind when he wrote it. I felt both depressed and disturbed by it the other night. The atrocities are all the darker set against a rip-roaring rock and roll sound track. But the human spirit remains indestructible. There is hope and ultimate happiness; and that is why, 50 years later, the work still gets a fabulous standing ovation.
Being analytical for a moment, it is at times sprawling and confusing, and it does depend heavily on a handful of recurring nostalgic anthems. But it is also affirming, exhilarating and damned good entertainment. The music – often a striking combination of rock guitar and military band – is magnificent; the singing is soulfully sublime and the individual performances outstanding.
Many of the leading actors have clear disabilities; but they are seamlessly integrated with able-bodied cast members. And the disabled audience is not forgotten. There is much signing going on. The surtitles explain everything and there is a tactile model of the shiny, industrial set in the foyer. Even the interval announcements are backed up by attendant with large-print bill boards.
The show is stunning. I was moved to whoops of joy and tears of compassion.
William Grint plays Tommy; much of the time with an air of bewilderment. There’s a charmingly portentous incident when his father gives him a toy bagatelle board to play with; and deeply moving moments when Tommy’s oblivion is penetrated by the pure white uniformed spirit of his late, paratrooper, father. They sign to each other whilst we hear ‘See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me’. Later, in just one example of the cast making light of their disabilities, Max Runham’s Captain Walker plays a guitar solo … with his missing arm.
When the maverick movie-maker Ken Russell filmed the story in 1975 he shocked the pop world by casting Tina Turner as the temptress Acid Queen. Director Kerry Michael goes further in this stage version by casting an old black man in drag…who can sing just as well. Peter Straker simply stops the show with his belting ballad as he tries to release Tommy with sexual healing. It’s such a magnificent moment you yearn for more. And we get it. Because Pete Townsend has written a new second-half song especially for him, “To Heal Another Child”.
The singing generally is superb; especially Natasha Lewis as Hawker and Shekinah McFarlane as the voice of Nora. Disabilities are proudly displayed. Tommy’s mother is acted with huge compassion by Donna Mullings…an actor who can barely speak. So Shekinah stands at her shoulder to sing her songs. Wheelchair user Garry Robson is spine-chillingly smiley as evil Uncle Ernie (with a secret sexual agenda) and Amy Trigg spins round the stage in her chair, dancing with grace and energy to ‘Pin Ball Wizzard’ … before touching our hearts with her innocent admiration of the now falsely idolised Tommy.
The icon comes crashing down of course. The statue of Tommy is reminiscent of that toppled monument of Saddam Hussain and the insincerity of awards ceremonies is pricked by a witty ‘wrong envelope’ gag; neat updates, both.
Today’s audience may be more aware of the gaping holes in the plot. How come there are no recriminations, once Tommy is restored? But this is epic event theatre on a monumental scale … a wonderful tribute to the invention and ambition of the sixties. It’s a must-see…whether you lived through them or not.