Greenwich Theatre, London – 29th July – 23rd August. Reviewed By Claire Roderick
See me – Feel me
This is the first UK revival of Tommy in 19 years, and 40 years after the release of the original film based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera.
Pete Townshend magnificent score takes us through Tommy’s life as he withdraws from the world after a childhood trauma, finally finding release through pinball. When he is finally “cured” Tommy is a Messianic superstar and, for a while, is seduced by the trappings of fame, until he finally finds peace; but the simple truths he shares with his adoring followers are unacceptable to them. The story still resonates today in our culture of talentless celebrity worship and quick consumer fixes for all of life’s ills.
Under Michael Strassen’s direction, this show is all about the music and the performers. The band, led by Kevin Oliver Jones, is on stage and play phenomenally well. A practically bare stage, deceptively simple costume and lighting design all enhance the performance and are never distracting. There are no pinball machines to be seen! Instead Mark Smith’s choreography and wonderful use of a single prop transport you to the arcade.
As Tommy, Ashley Birchall is a force of nature. He is on stage constantly and his finely nuanced physical performance reveals Tommy’s emotions beautifully.
Michael Strassen says he wanted to stage a world where we see the inner workings of Tommy and not just a blank stare – and that’s just what we get. Tommy’s feelings are portrayed by the company (Danny Becker, Carly Burns, Alice Mogg, Scott Sutcliffe and Carrie Sutton) and Giovanni Spano dancing around him. In other hands this could have been a disaster, but Smith’s sympathetic choreography and the passion of the dancers create glimpses – both unsettling and uplifting – into Tommy’s world.
Miranda Wilford and James Sinclair are fantastic as Tommy’s parents. Wilford captures Mrs Walker’s helpless love and frustration and Sinclair is suitably stiff and remote as a 1950’s father, making you want to both slap them and give them a hug as they struggle to cope with Tommy’s condition.
John Barr is suitably grotesque as Uncle Ernie and gets grubbier as the show progresses, while Giovanni Spano is gleefully vicious as Cousin Kevin. Their “Eyesight for the Blind” is a showstopper – two amazing voices and two very different, but equally talented dancers.
As for Carly Burns’ Acid Queen, think Kate Bush on speed – wonderfully weird and wicked.
The director’s confidence and faith in the source material, its message and his cast is clear from the finale – no fancy flourishes, no dancing – just Ashley Birchall joined by the whole cast for ”Listening to You”. The audience could hardly contain themselves – you are swept away on a wave of euphoria until the final, moving, moment.
And the band play on… After curtain call the musical director deservedly takes centre stage, teasing us with a classic Townshend ending to a perfect night.
GO AND SEE THIS SHOW – A magnificent antidote to overblown and overproduced musicals.