Tommy

Music & lyrics by Pete Townshend; book by Pete Townshend & Des McAnuff; Additional music & lyrics by John Entwistle & Keith Moon
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2005)

Let's get the pedantic bit out of the way first: in the British armed forces you do not salute if you are not wearing a cap. In the first scene of this production, airmen salute each other continually, most of the time not wearing their caps. A little thing - and possibly most people wouldn't even notice - but small details can make or break, and, to be honest, there were a lot of these kinds of small details which were just wrong.

Pedantry satisfied! What about the show?

Although it's called a rock opera, the term does not mean what perhaps one might think, according to an article in the programme. It gives five key points, one of which is:

Rock operas tend to have a different overall structure to rock musicals, based more around the number of tracks on the (concept) album rather than the standard theatrical structure compete with acts, finales and showstoppers.

In other words, don't treat it as if it is Jesus Christ Superstar or others of that kind. A good point, for if we were to look at it from a "standard theatrical" point of view, Tommy would fail. Although obviously there is a linear narrative and each track takes the story forward, because the show is built round individual tracks, it is much more episodic. This is very clear in Ken Russell's film, in which each track is presented as a magnificently over-the-top music video, but the stage version, being restricted by a single set, does not have that luxury, and so we have passages of dialogue which not only link together the tracks but also serve to deepen the characters to some extent. However, this apart, the album structure still applies. Oddly enough, its ancestors are pieces like Schubert's Winterreise - song cycles in another musical idiom.

The first thing that strikes you about the actual production is that it is loud. Appropriately, I suppose, given that The Who were known as the loudest band of their time (until Slade came along to take the assault on our eardrums up a notch or six!). It is very much an ensemble piece, with only three people playing the same character throughout, and it's a good ensemble. It is obvious that there will always be comparisons made between the production and the film, so directors Guy Rettalack and Keith Strachan have wisely not tried to get their performers to compete with the likes of Elton John, Eric Clapton or Keith Moon and have presented the scenes in more of a music theatre than music video mode. Indeed, they use Talk About Your Woman as a lead-in to The Acid Queen and that does work well.

One, however, does get close: Landi Oshinowo makes a huge impression as the Acid Queen and, although her costume pays tribute to Tina Turner, otherwise she makes the song her own. I was also impressed by Vivienne Carlyle as Mrs Walker: she ages very convincingly as we move from the forties to the fifties and into the sixties and her anguished Smash the Mirror worked very well. Also convincing is Tom Newman's Uncle Ernie.

Jonathan Wilkes' Tommy, however, did not really work that well for me. There was a self-consciousness about the performance which made me feel I was watching Wilkes rather than Tommy most of the time. In fact, it was only in the second half, during We're Not Going to Take It, that I felt really convinced.

The audience loved it, but the fact that they rose enthusisatically to their feet at Wilke's request to clap along with the finale reprise of Listening to You suggests to me that it was the music rather than the show which moved them. The ending is, actually, very downbeat: Sally Simpson (a nice performance by Rachel Tucker) and Tommy's other fans, including the security guards, want glamour, which is not what Tommy wants, and so he is left abandoned. But the production whips the audience up at the end, thus subverting the show.

"Tommy" runs at the Theatre Royal until 18th June, which is also the end of the tour

David Chadderton reviewed this production at the Palace, Manchester, in April.

Peter Lathan