The Who’s Tommy is the second production from Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative consortium of six regional theatres and Graeae Theatre Company. The project seeks to achieve a step change in the employment and artistic opportunities for disabled performers and creative teams, and a cultural change in the participating organisations to enable accessibility to become a central part of their thinking and aesthetics.
There is an ongoing debate about diversity and disability representation within the arts whilst actors, such as Eddie Redmayne, are critically lauded and award laden for ‘cripping up’. Disability rights also feature heavily in political discussions on both sides of the Atlantic; just yesterday a video was circulating social media showing a protester being physically removed from her wheelchair in an aggressive act of censorship. This production of Tommy engages and explores these tensions not only through its use of Deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers but also through the musical’s opening montage which frames the production with images of disabled people protesting for their rights and benefits through the years.
A projection informs us that we are in 2017 (when disability benefits have been cut) and an elderly Tommy sits alone. Arnim Friess’s excellent lighting at this point suggests the ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who’s story we are about to explore, as older Tommy’s eyes and mouth are in shadow. The production then explodes, moving from acoustic to electric, as we travel back to the Second World War. Robert Hyman and the company of actor musicians (it is hard to keep up with who’s playing what!) enjoy every iconic nuance of Townsend’s classic score and there are some gorgeous arrangements throughout. The band occasionally dominate the proceedings (which is a shame with such a fantastic array of vocal talent on stage) but surtitles help the audience to keep up with the action.
Tommy is not your typical escapist musical theatre fayre. The depictions of Tommy’s abuse at the hands of his uncle and cousin are particularly harrowing. The endless specialists and doctors who are almost disappointed to not find anything wrong with Tommy after invasive tests speak to the shows recurrent theme of visibility and wider discussions about invisible disability.
Director Kerry Michael finds subtlety within Townshend and McAnuff’s book employing BSL to great effect. Mark Smith’s vibrant choreography propels the show, often incorporating BSL as the performers simultaneously communicate, fluidly singing and signing at the same time. There are stand-out dance moments from Natasha Julien, Alim Jayda and Lukus Alexander (chilling as Cousin Kevin) who pop, lock and whirl across the pinball inspired stage. Donna Mullings portrayal of Nora’s love for and frustration with Tommy draws the audience into her dilemma. The dynamic between Mullings and Shekinah McFarlane (who is the exceptional voice of Nora when she sings) is fascinating to watch and allows Michael to further explore the many directions Nora is pulled in.
There are so many excellent performances that it feels unfair to single out individuals, and word limits prevent a full roll call. William Grint in the title role is haunting and engaging. Peter Straker lives up to his legendary status, inhabiting and enjoying the diva Acid Queen role thirty-eight years after his first appearance in the show as the Narrator. Max Runham’s ghostly refrain of ‘see me, feel me, touch me’ providing a consistent reminder of the message of this production.
This production of The Who’s rock opera manages to mask the limitations of the original material as a talented ensemble brings their heart and soul to the piece. It is not always easy to watch, it will and should spark debate and discussion but it is an entertaining production that fulfils the toe-tapping and spectacular musical theatre requirements.
Reviewer: Clare Chandler
Reviewed: 23rd June 2017
North West End Rating: ★★★★