Saturday 1 August 2015

Tommy - Review

Greenwich Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Pete Townsend
Book by Pete Townsend and Des McAnuff
Additional music and lyrics by John Entwhistle and Keith Moon
Directed by Michael Strassen

Ashley Birchall

Amidst the present day plethora of so called "juke box" musicals, in which bands' and singers' back catalogues are ruthlessly plundered to provide musical highlights for a show that is either autobiographical or worse still, downright anodyne in its narrative, it is an absolute joy for London to be re-united with Tommy.

Released in 1969, The Who's brave and stunning concept album was the first (and arguably the best ever) rock opera, telling an original tale of a young boy turned deaf, dumb and blind after witnessing his RAF pilot father, until then missing presumed shot down in a Second World War dogfight, return home unexpectedly after the War and shoot dead his wife's (Tommy's mother) new lover.

Trapped in a life of sensory deprivation, evil and abusive family members heap merciless bullying and sexual abuse onto Tommy's torments until, by chance, he discovers a gift for pinball - and a road to his salvation emerges. Painting a gritty if sometimes psychedelic picture of a post-war Britain struggling to define itself through rock music, Tommy is not only a fabulous work of fiction – it also makes for fascinating social comment.  

I must declare an interest. Having grown up with Tommy as one of my soundtracks to the 1970s, along with hard-wired memories of Ken Russell’s 1975 film adaptation, my expectations (riskily) ran high for Michael Strassen's production at the Greenwich Theatre. Those expectations were not only met, but like Tommy's mirror they were smashed, in a show that offered an all too rare trinity of perfection in song, movement and music.

Credit first to the band. Under Kevin Oliver Jones' direction and guitar work, Lauren Storer on keyboards, bassist Paolo Minervini, with Kamil Bartnik on drums create a sound that offers a beautifully weighted tribute to the original mix, with a rock pulse that could have come straight from a time machine. One minor criticism is that the show’s sound desk still need to get the balance finely tuned.

The Overture’s opening bars set the standard for the rest of the evening. As Jones' band work their way through the score's iconic motifs, Mark Smith's choreography plays out the prologue's complex narrative solely through dance and mime. Smith’s routines are expert in both conception and execution and combined with Strassen's interpretation of the libretto, give rise to tableaux that are breathtaking in their ingenuity, simplicity and brilliance.

In the title role Ashley Birchall leads the company, onstage throughout, with a performance fused with energy and sensitivity. Birchall’s energy in I’m Free complementing the heart rending sensitivity he offers in See Me, Feel Me.  In a role that by definition demands an extensive use of mime and physicality Smith and Strassen had between them coaxed excellence from the young man. Miranda Wilford delivers her usual level of brilliance as Mrs Walker (Tommy’s mother) having to age, both physically and in attitude, from carefree young teenager to a middle aged matriarch, her Smash The Mirror an impressive solo.

Giovanni Spano is every inch a school bully as his Cousin Kevin tortures Tommy, though even his wickedness is trumped by John Barr, whose sensational take on the vile paedophile, Tommy’s Uncle Ernie offers perhaps one of the nastiest characters in the canon. If the lyrics to Fiddle About are shocking, they were matched only by the ghastly yet skilfully undertstated performance of Barr’s toothless menacing molester. Barr’s monstrous creation is enhanced later in act one by Smith’s choreography of Eyesight To The Blind, with both Ernie and Kevin in a Fosse-inspired routine – tatty trilbys replacing the legendary choreographer’s signature bowler hats.

Confined by a modest budget, Nik Corrall’s vision of the show’s sets is masterful. A clever use of rope suggested a domestic living room – whilst the brilliance of the pinball sequence will not be given away in this review.

Only here for three weeks, Tommy is unmissable and up there with the very best of musical theatre on offer in London today. See it, hear it!

Runs until 23rd August
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

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