Saturday, August 1, 2015

'Tommy' at the Greenwich Theatre, 31st July 2015

Tommy is an odd duck. Written in 1969 by Pete Townshend with the intention of expanding the scope of rock music, it's been a concept album, Ken Russell movie and stage production. Now, 46 years after its first release, it's revived on the London stage. Do the themes, aesthetics and lyrics of the late sixties resonate with contemporary audiences? Is this a mere exercise in nostalgia or does the show stand up to modern scrutiny?

Beginning in 1943 and ending in 1963, Tommy tells the story of its eponymous protagonist (Ashley Birchall). After witnessing his mother's lover shooting his father dead, he's pressured never to reveal what happened. The weight of this trauma manifests in the loss of his senses. Now blind, deaf and dumb, he's subsequently molested by his creepy Uncle Ernie (John Barr) and physically abused by his sadistic cousin Kevin (Giovanni Spano). 

He eventually finds solace in an unlikely place: pinball. Though he cannot see or hear the machine, he can sense the vibrations within, allowing him godlike control of the ball. He parlays this into fame, his opportunistic family riding the coattails of his success. Eventually he lifts his psychosomatic condition, restoring his senses. I think he then opens up a holiday camp or maybe starts a cult and becomes a rock star (the narrative gets a bit loosey-goosey in the latter half). 

In the victimised, put upon and ultimately venerated Tommy, it's easy to see an analogue of Pete Townshend himself - a comfortably numb rock star bounced around (like a pinball!) by a gang of managers, band-mates, groupies and hangers-on. Broad themes of exploitation of talent, blind worship of idols and battling against the calcified British class structure run through the material; the solution to these problems to free your mind with a combination of noodly guitar solos, high-pitched wailing and LSD. Far out, man.

Very quickly you realise that Tommy is a product of its time. The aesthetic is smartly modernist; the characters all in white, splodges of colour provided by props and costuming elements. The set follows a similar theme, concentric white equilateral triangles and white foam discs illuminated by dazzlingly bright gels. There's an air of the surreal throughout, the outlines of scenery delineated by ropes held by the cast, emotions conveyed by energetic , tightly choreographed dance sequences.

Performance-wise it's a bit of a mixed bag. Ashley Birchall's Tommy is too conventionally hunky for my taste, less ostracised weirdo made good and more temporarily embarrassed boy band member. The real highlights come in the supporting cast, namely John Barr's gross Uncle Ernie, whose blackened teeth and waggling cigar faintly echo Jimmy Savile. Best of all is Giovanni Spano's wonderfully arrogant asshole cousin Kevin. Every inch of him seeps unpleasantness, from the curl of his lips to the furrow of his brow; its one of those performances where you can guarantee he's doing something interesting whenever you look at him.

Musically it's similarly mixed. The band gives it their all, but the sound is a bit flat and the playing energetic but slightly mannered. Fortunately they're buoyed by an enjoyably varied book, from the psych-rock of Acid Queen to the plinky plonky warped music hall of Tommy's Holiday Camp. Best of all is Pinball Wizard, a fantastic song that doesn't lose its lustre even when played multiple times. There is a limit to how much dad rock I can handle in one sitting, Tommy pushes it a bit, but remains broadly musically fun.

For all that, the best thing Tommy's got going on is that it's never dull. Sure, large chunks of the narrative are unintelligible and there's a lot of interpretative dance to digest, but there's also weird doctors dressed as human televisions or a woman who appears to be the living embodiment of LSD. As the cast are toss gigantic pinballs at one other, cavort around in pink fright wigs or sing end of the pier songs about child molestation it's difficult not to be entertained - even if it's just wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

For all that fun/weird/bizarre stuff, in 2015 Tommy is ultimately a historical curiosity: a nostalgic dose of late sixties avant-garde-a-clue. But judging by the audience's rapturous response toit, this stuff is baby boomer crack. For me, it succeeded in entertaining, but frustrated in its opacity.


Tommy is at the Greenwich Theatre until 23 August. Tickets here.

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