The Who’s Tommy continues at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London until 17 June, then tours until 1 July.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
This ambitious inclusive take on The Who’s 1969 rock musical is vibrant, energetic and showcases some exciting talent.
In fact it’s theatrically so busy that you’d probably need to see it half a dozen times to ensure that you miss nothing.
It’s an inspired idea, too, to present this particular show with a large, highly accomplished ensemble cast including many deaf and disabled performers (Kerry Michael directs).
This is the second show from Ramps on the Moon, a six-year touring project which brings together a network of six National Portfolio Organisations including Graeae.
William Grint, as Tommy, develops his character from a puzzled toddler to a desperately troubled blind, deaf and dumb child; from a traumatised adolescent to eventually a celebrity of sorts.
His face during the pinball scenes is deeply expressive and he talks eloquently with his body. It’s very sensitive work and using two actors (Matthew Jacobs-Morgan and Julian Capolei) to voice his thoughts in conventional words and song intensifies that.
There is also an outstanding performance – and this show is not short of them – from Amy Trigg as Sally. Trigg is a wheelchair user and dances with her wheels so effectively that it’s almost an art form in its own right. She sings beautifully too and has a very engaging, compelling way of using her face.
Peter Straker, who played this role in the original production, contributes a deliciously camped up and quite sinister drag cameo for the Acid Queen, and Garry Robson is pleasing as the sexually predatory Uncle Ernie.
The scene in which Robson’s character describes abusing Tommy when he’s left to babysit is accompanied by one of the most effectively repellent bits of theatrical business I’ve ever seen – very simple and very graphic.
Versatile actor-musicianship is a great strength of this show. Each band member also plays a small speaking/singing role, and there are several good instrumentalists in the ensemble.
It’s a real pleasure, for example, to see (again – I enjoyed his work in Lost Theatre’s Nicobobinus in 2014) the delightfully unconventional guitar playing of Max Runham. He also sings with lovely lyricism as Captain Walker who is a ghost for most of the show.
Of course, it’s the quality of Pete Townshend’s music and words which really make Tommy and in this version the storytelling is crystal clear to everybody. All the words are projected as sur-titles.
At the same time every word is signed, either by the speaker/singer or by someone else onstage. And choreographer Mark Smith, deaf himself, has a really imaginative flair for integrating sign into dance.
My only reservation about this otherwise fine show – and it’s a major one – is the volume at which it’s presented. It is so loud that often you can’t hear the detail in the music.
Moreover, I emerged at the end with my sternum actually hurting because for two and a half hours it had had to absorb the colossal vibrations coming up through the floor. It can’t be doing an old building much good either.
Of course, Tommy is never going to be a quiet piece but it could be several notches lower without losing anything. And it would, ironically, allow people to hear more of it.