TOMMY – Greenwich Theatre, London
A lot of goodwill greets the first revival of The Who’s Tommy for 19 years, but to paraphrase their contemporaries, The Rolling Stones, audiences might find little in the way of satisfaction. Sadly, despite a spirited version presented at the Greenwich Theatre by director Michael Strassen, the show which was disjointed upon release in 1969, remains so today.
Centring on talented Tommy (Ashley Birchall), we find a pinball wizard rendered deaf, dumb and blind after bearing witness to a traumatic incident when young. Is it a medical mystery? Or is this simply a prolonged psychosomatic episode? Either way, Tommy plummets into the depths of his own imagination, fast becoming a celebrity through his unfathomable ability with a pinball machine.
Written by The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend, it is a story that dares to venture down the darkest paths. It is befitting a work with operatic ambitions. Strassen’s work is on the whole respectful of the fashionable psychedelic leanings that proliferated around the time of the rock opera’s creation in the 1960s. But he does not shy away from the hard-hitting topics either.
He summons an effective depiction of the darkest underbelly of human nature in Uncle Ernie’s (played by John Barr) starkly lecherous, immoral and repulsive signature song, ‘Fiddle About’, and he adeptly juxtaposes this against the euphoria of ‘Pinball Wizard’ when the time comes. Of course, in terms of the latter, it remains the calling card for this work; an iconic song and a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Here, it is regaled with clout in a memorable routine.
Although the quality of the performances are disappointingly inconsistent, the most resolutely powerful are Birchall, who is fantastic in the central role, alongside James Sinclair as Captain Walker and Miranda Wilford as Mrs Walker. The live band’s accompaniment is of tantamount importance. It is a pleasure to say that they play the dynamics very well; flicking from genteel, incidental accompaniment to all-the-way-up-to-eleven rollicking rock.
All in all, there is a struggle for this production to surmount the flaws found at the source. Tommy might have been lauded as a classic upon release, but the passing of time has shorn the flattering sheen of novelty and revealed the flimsiness of much of the music, alongside a plot riddled with holes.
Simply put, there are too many developments where the transitions are not clear. And they have not been truly addressed here and those unfamiliar with the show may struggle to comprehend what is happening. Similarly, much of the busy choreography only intermittently soars. The climax leaves a glowing impression but it is a pity that this could not be said for the piece as a whole.
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By Greg Wetherall
29th July – 23rd August 2015
Greenwich Theatre, London, SE10 8ES.