It’s often good when an old classic musical comes on again, particularly if the original writer has been involved in the new production, even contributing a new song to the show. This is particularly true of production company Ramps on the Moon who are currently touring with The Who’s Tommy which I was lucky enough to catch at the Theatre Royal Stratford East this week.
World War II and two people fall in love. Captain Walker (Max Runham) and Nora (Donna Mullings, voiced by Shekinah McFarlane) meet and after a whirlwind romance they marry. As Captain Walker goes off back to war, he leaves his pregnant wife at home waiting for his return. Time passes, and Nora gives birth to a son who she names Tommy (William Grint, voiced by Julian Capolei and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan) who, like his mother is anticipating the day his father returns from the war. Unfortunately, they are both going to be disappointed as Captain Walker is reported to be missing, believed dead. Both mother and son are initially distraught but time is a great healer and eventually, Nora meets and falls in love with Frank (Alim Jones). Frank is a kind man who is willing and eager to take on both Nora and Tommy and everything seems to be heading for a happy ending with the family walking hand in hand towards a setting sun. Then something happens, something bad. So bad in fact that Tommy becomes traumatised to the point where he is unable to see, hear or speak. Can Tommy recover from this or will he be forever stuck in a world totally inside his own head?
Tommy is such a classic show. With Book, Music and Lyrics by pop royalty – Pete Townshend, Des McAnuff, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, the creative team have to be spot on when bringing a new production to the public. Fortunately, Director Kerry Michael and Dramaturg Paul Sirett managed to do everything right with this production. My companion of the night is a massive The Who fan and probably knows every word to Tommy. He is a hard man to please in the theatre but, like everyone else, he joined in the standing ovation, applauding loudly at the end. So, given that write up, where did this show go right?
Let’s start with casting, and more to the point, let’s start with the casting of Tommy himself. William Grint was a marvel to watch. Despite everything that happened to Tommy – and there were plenty of things – William was immune to it all. Never a flick of his eyes giving away the person beneath the character. You may have noticed above I said that the character of Tommy was voiced by Julian Capolei and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan. This is because William is deaf in real life so he signs the songs and the other two sing the lyrics. This makes for not only a heavenly spectacle for the audience to watch but also a lot of additional work for the three actors, ensuring the signing and singing are synced together. The same is true of Donna Mullings playing Nora. She and her ‘voice’ Shekinah McFarlane have to be in perfect harmony with their songs and those moments when Tommy and his mother sing together are just magical. I have to admit, I was very surprised that the Acid Queen was going to be played by a man but, I have to say Peter Straker was fantastic. What a voice and what a stage presence. Two songs and he/she virtually stole the show. Garry Robson and Lukus Alexander were both just creepy and nasty enough as Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin respectively and full praise goes out to Max Runham’s Captain Walker, particularly during ‘Pinball Wizard’. A final call out to Amelia Cavello, a blind performer, who really throws herself into the performance and dances with a confidence that was a delight to witness.
As you may have guessed from reading above, Tommy is performed by a cast of 22 that includes deaf and disabled actors. The actors sing, dance, play instruments and really bring the show up to date. Although still set in the period 1941 to the mid-60s, the show feels fresh and very contemporary. Neil Irish has done a great job with the very industrial looking set and the costumes – I really loved the white jacket Tommy wore in the second act.
This production is accessible theatre at its best with BSL interpreted songs and surtitles above the stage ensuring nobody misses anything. I have seen a couple of BSL interpreted performances before and have always marveled at the skill and emotion that comes out from the interpreter. Seeing the actual actors doing the signing just takes it to a whole new level.
Summing up then. My recommendation is that if you want to see the best version of The Who’s classic Rock Opera that you are ever likely to see, then you need to get to Stratford or catch it on the UK tour. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.
Review by Terry Eastham
Music and Lyrics Pete Townshend
Book Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music and Lyrics John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Director Kerry Michael
Associate Director Nicola Miles-Wildin
Dramaturg Paul Sirett
Designer Neil Irish
Musical Director Robert Hyman
Assistant Musical Director Oliver Vibrans
Choreographer Mark Smith
Lighting and AV Designer Arnim Friess
Sound Designer Andrew Johnson for Creative Technology
Casting Director Polly Jerrold
British Sign Language Creative Consultants Jeni Draper and Daryl Jackson
Alim Jayda as Lover
Amy Trigg as Sally Simpson
Donna Mullings as Mrs Walker
Garry Robson as Uncle Ernie
Lukus Alexander as Cousin Kevin
Max Runham as Captain Walker
Peter Straker as Acid Queen
William Grint as Tommy
Wed 7 Jun – Sat 17 Jun 2017