BWW Review: TOMMY, Theatre Royal Stratford East
Nearing the end of a successful national tour, Ramps on the Moon's co-production of The Who's Tommy continues its journey with a run at Theatre Royal Stratford East this month. Ramps on the Moon is a budding consortium that is associating closely with several UK theatres and theatre companies as they work on new projects over the course of the next few years. One of their partners, Graeae Theatre Company, will be at Stratford East later this year with their production of Reasons To Be Cheerful.
It's World War Two, and not long after his marriage Captain Walker goes missing and is presumed dead. His wife Nora gives birth to a boy named Tommy (born deaf) and tries to move on with her life when she meets Frank - but one day her husband returns out of the blue. The two men get into a fight, Frank eventually killing Captain Walker. Tommy witnessed the entire thing through the reflection of a mirror; the trauma of the event and his mother and stepfather shouting at him seem to cause him to go dumb and blind. Try as they might, they can't find a cure, and leave Tommy open to abuse from his Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin. One day, Tommy finds a pinball machine at the local youth club and begins to play - to everyone's astonishment he is brilliant at it, and they begin to hope for his eventual recovery. But is it too late?
Given the company's makeup, it's logical that they'd want to make the show as accessible as possible to all audiences. In that vein, some of the cast use sign language to communicate with each other, and captions are also used for nearly all of the performance. They have also included an additional brief prologue that shows the current situation for people with disabilities; as important an issue as it is, I'm not sure how well it links to the story they're about to tell. The performance area is also very busy at that point, with projections on a curtain as well as captions, and actors onstage - it's hard to know what to look at. The captions are very high up, which makes it very difficult to see them from near the front, and impossible to watch the action at the same time.
It is useful to be able to glance at the captions occasionally, as the music drowns out some of the lyrics (particularly the faster ones). However, it is to the show's credit that the music is loud - it is a rock opera after all! Having the band just visible at the back of the stage brings some immediacy to proceedings, rather than having them hidden away in a pit - and some other cast members bring on additional instruments, combining them with the action. Mark Smith's choreography is a bit frenetic at times, but overall adds to the energy provided by the onstage band.
The large company works very well together, combining disabled and non-disabled performers to great effect. Natasha Lewis has an incredible voice, put to great use as the Hawker in "Eyesight to the Blind"; with those vocals and charisma it's actually a shame she isn't the Acid Queen. Original production cast member Peter Straker takes on that role (previously performed by the likes of Tina Turner and Bette Midler) - he definitely has the voice for it, but is sadly lacking in sass.
William Grint, who last year appeared in Matthew Dunster's Imogen at Shakespeare's Globe, takes on the title role with aplomb. His face tells a story without him having to utter a word, giving a profoundly moving performance that's full of spirit.
Pete Townshend has worked closely with the company, even providing a new song and some new lyrics for another; it stays true to its rock roots, all the while evolving into a truly 21st century production. Tommy is indeed a baffling story, but that doesn't stop it from being a terrific night's entertainment.
Photo credit: Mike Kwasniak