Tommy was reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and now tours until 1 July.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I caught up with this rock musical delivered with immense skill by a company of 22 multi-abled artists in Ipswich prior to national tour.
The New Wolsey Theatre audiences are used to witnessing the ‘triple threats’ (and quadruple threats) of performers who are asked to act, sing, dance, and play musical instruments.
Here the Wolsey, as part of a new touring project Ramps on the Moon, offered us the additional mix of artistry with integrated sign language, and an array of artists who were bringing their own adept physicality and passionate humanity to inhabit their roles with additional layers of performance skills. It was a great way to bring Tommy to touch the hearts of any theatregoer.
Tommy started as a concept album by The Who in 1969 and was first brought to the screen by Ken Russell in 1975 with a staging in 1979.
Then in 1993 Pete Townshend worked with Des McAnuff to bring the show to a mass Broadway audience, winning Tony Awards and electrifying a new generation with the tale of the ‘Pinball Wizard’ who became a ‘deaf, dumb and blind boy’ through the shock of witnessing an horrific act in his home.
I remember sitting at the back of the gods at a matinee surrounded by school children and their teachers who had not been born when The Who were creating their immense albums, and realising that the power of the music, and the story of one young man’s struggle at the hands of school bullies, wicked uncles, and the system, resonated just as much then as now. We were all on our feet cheering in the packed Broadway theatre, just as we were 24 years later in Ipswich.
This is the second production of a six-show programme by Ramps on the Moon, following the Olivier-nominated production of The Government Inspector.
Grab a ticket as the show tours in the next couple of months and remember that what you see and hear on stage is accessible to the widest audience to experience with every performance captioned, internally signed, and many with audio description too.
In order to portray the inner thoughts of our deaf, dumb, and blind hero, and to offer performances for each role in British sign language and spoken/sung English, all of the parts are supported by other characters on stage.
So Tommy’s mum (Donna Mullings) offers us a deeply heartfelt signed performance complemented by the knockout voice of Shekinah Mcfarlane.
Tommy (played with quiet power by William Grint) is at times represented in his inner voice of longing by the pure wistful voice of his father (Max Runham), and later when he is in his wizard role by the double rock voices of Julian Capolei and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan.
The core rock band of Adam Langstaff (drums), Tony Qunta and Steve Simmonds (guitars), and Robert Hyman (keys and MD) are worth the price of the ticket alone, thanks to their power, passion, and watchability.
But they are joined by a flow of the actor-musicians who seamlessly move from character parts to enriching the score. Unlike many actor-muso shows, director Kerry Michael has chosen to keep the acting and playing, in the main, separate – allowing the drama to flow without instruments around the leading actors’ necks. This feels helpful.
The piece has been reworked by Kerry Michael and dramaturg Paul Sirett with the support of Pete Townshend, who has delivered a new number for the show too.
It is still a crazy piece of drama, but the storytelling comes across well and we are so engrossed in the moment that we forget the episodic oddities which take us to some pretty bizarre momentary places in Act II.
A couple of updates (to add jokes from this year) land flat, but in the main the crazy concept album is delivered high and tripping.
When Peter Straker takes over the stage for certain numbers, he receives well-deserved, delighted applause.
There are also some great solo dancers in the company, and some powerful ensemble numbers which really show the integrated nature of this production.
Standout dancers for me have to be Amy Trigg, who also has a powerful and too silent role until her one number, as Sally; Alim Jayda, who also offers the core stepdad role to Tommy and his mum,; and Lukus Alexander as Cousin Kevin, the schoolyard bully we hope we never meet.
Together these three catch the eye with their solo work, but one musn’t underestimate the overall ensemble making up the whole company of 22.
I loved the chance to enjoy the poetic power of sign language song, and this integrated performance style allows us to see fine versatile performers working together to make their mode of expression accessible to all.
And so congratulations to Kerry Michael as director, the New Wolsey, Ramps on the Moon and the fine interpreters of movement and sign with choreographer Mark Smith and creative consultants Jeni Draper and Daryl Jackson. I wish the company well on tour.