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Posts Tagged ‘Pete Townsend’

I fell in love with Tommy, the world’s first ‘rock opera’, when the concept album was released in 1969. I liked rather than loved Ken Russell’s 1975 star-studded film, but fell in love with it all over again when the new stage adaptation hit the West End in 1996, and here I am again completely smitten by this thrilling and uplifting revival.

One of the great successes of this production is the integrated casting, including a deaf Tommy and his mother Nora, and actors and musicians with other disabilities. The story of a boy traumatised by his father’s death, becoming deaf dumb and blind, seems to resonate so much more cast in this way, and what talent – a stage brimming with it. The four-piece band (three of whom also have a role) led by Robert Hyman is terrific. The vocals are superb, with two actors assisting Tommy and one his mum; Max Runham is particularly strong vocally as Captain Walker. Additional wind, brass, guitar and percussion is provided by eleven members of the cast.

Kerry Michael’s staging has great pace and there’s some funny, quirky period choreography by Mark Smith. Neil Irish has provided a design which manages to create both intimate and big spaces. It was an inspired idea to cast Peter Straker as the Acid Queen, for whom Pete Townsend has written an extra number. Garry Robinson has great presence as Uncle Ernie and I very much liked Alim Jayda as Tommy’s step-dad Frank. I found William Grint’s performance as Tommy deeply moving.

This has been co-produced with Graeae and some of our finest regional theatres and I can’t imagine a better use of public funding; a terrific example of how such collaborations can produce exciting world class work. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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It’s 46 years since The Who released Tommy, one of the most ground-breaking albums of the 60’s (or any other decade come to that), the first ‘rock opera’. Like all great music, it still sounds fresh. I loved Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff’s stage musical when it was first staged in London in 1996 and its surprising that we haven’t seen it since. So a bucket-load of brownie points to Guy James (no relation!), Katie Lipson and Ilai Szpiezak for putting on this revival at Greenwich Theatre.

I’m sure everyone knows the story. Tommy is traumatised when he sees his father, unexpectedly returned from the war, kill his mother’s new man and becomes deaf, dumb and blind. He’s persecuted by his Cousin Kevin and interfered with by his Uncle Ernie. Searches for a cure seem hopeless, but one day he does indeed recover all three faculties and at first becomes a bit of a freak show and ultimately a sort of Messiah. It’s an extraordinary score and here its sung brilliantly by a top notch young cast of just ten. It has one of the best closing numbers of a musical – Listening To You – and they do it proud.

Director Michael Strassen, a Union Theatre regular where I’ve seen nine of his productions, uses a two-tier stage with triangular motifs, with most of the cast dressed in white, a handful of props and some striking lighting. I wasn’t convinced by the choreography, which didn’t seem in keeping with the material – too arty farty & balletic and not muscular enough! I also felt the band was too quiet much of the time – it is a rock musical, after all – though somewhat ironically were terrific in the play-out. It was a touch restrained in the first half, though it ended on a high with Pinball Wizzard, but came into its own after the interval.

I very much liked Ashley Birchall’s Tommy, particularly in the later scenes. I loved the characterisations of seedy Uncle Ernie by the excellent John Barr and the odious bully Kevin of Giovanni Spani. There wasn’t really a fault in the casting; the audience gave them a standing ovation on Thursday.

Definitely worth catching one of the last four performances of this rarely revived show with an iconic score.

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