The Who’s Tommy is an extraordinary work – a ground-breaking concept album and live tour, transformed into a cult film, adapted into an award-winning stage show. Even if you’re not a fan of the band (I am, I admit), its formative influence on the rock opera is undeniable, with extraordinary music and rich, elusive themes that make it ripe for constant revisiting. Ramps on the Moon, the similarly ground-breaking co-producing partnership between six regional theatres who brought us last year’s hilarious and pointed The Government Inspector, nail the show’s energy, volume and trippy exuberance. But in tackling a story about a ‘deaf, dumb and blind boy’ with a fully integrated cast of d/Deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors, Kerry Michael’s production also confronts the ableism of the original and of religious discourses of healing, giving this version pleasing bite.
Neil Irish’s forced perspective set, with two metal-sheened walls leading to the blistering live band on a podium upstage, evokes the inside of a pinball machine, and the cast ricochet around within it, the physical language of sign interpretation integrated seamlessly into the choreography. Following the film rather than the album/musical, in this version Captain Walker (Max Runham) is lost during the war, only to return and be killed by his wife’s new lover, Frank (Alim Jayda). While Frank and Tommy’s mother, Nora (Donna Mullings and Shekinah McFarlane), shake Tommy into a world in which he no longer sees or speaks, Captain Walker becomes Tommy’s guide on the ‘amazing journey’. It is made clear from the start that Tommy (William Grint) is focused entirely on the angelic/ghostly memory of his father, traumatised by the guilt of not intervening to save him.
The original Tommy reads Tommy’s disabilities as psychosomatic – he is traumatised into choosing to be Deaf, dumb and blind, and his ‘miracle cure’ restores all his senses. Here, however, Tommy and his mother are both Deaf from birth. In a beautifully realised double performance, Nora is accompanied by a voice actor, interpreting her BSL in song, increasing exponentially the complexity of her characterisation and crystallising the production’s understanding of communication as fundamentally collaborative. The traumatised Tommy, on the other hand, isolates himself, either unable or unwilling to engage with the mechanisms that would allow him to participate in the world. When he is ‘cured’, he remains Deaf, but now engages with the external world, and has two accompanying voices of his own to interpret his signs in song.
And what songs. ‘Pinball Wizard’ is a show-stopping climax to the first half, a Chorus of 1950s youth club kids in bright pastels spinning around an over-sized pinball machine that Tommy mounts while his ghostly father – an actor with one hand – thrashes out percussive guitar. ‘Sensation’ and ‘I’m Free’ soar, the cast looking rapturous as the harmonies come together. And the climactic ‘Listening to You’ led to a full house standing ovation on press night, its optimistic hopes for universal communication a fitting climax.
But the show rests on its character numbers, particularly the litany of abuses to which Tommy is subjected while in his withdrawn state. Garry Robson is rightly horrific as Uncle Ernie singing ‘Fiddle About’; he turns off the stage lights, and all that is visible is a pair of disembodied hands in a spotlight presenting the invasive BSL sign for ‘fiddling’, before the lights come up to reveal Tommy shaking and foetal on the floor, unable to speak of his abuse. Lukus Alexander runs rings around Tommy as Cousin Kevin, throwing him to the floor and bullying Tommy mercilessly, though it is also Kevin who introduces him to the youth club where he discovers the pinball that turns him into a celebrity. Natasha Lewis kills it as the Hawker, and then passes the baton to the jaw-dropping voice of Peter Straker as the Acid Queen. Straker was in the original production, and his appearance here is a celebrated cameo, ‘Acid Queen’ and the newly written, bluesy ‘Torch Song’ (in which the Acid Queen reflects on her aging beauty) earning the only two pauses for applause in an otherwise breakneck show. Straker’s sleazy, shimmery gown, downbeat retinue and tabloid-grabbing revelations mark the lowpoint of Tommy’s abuse, and a high point of the show’s musical beauty.
The production begins with new lyrics to ‘Amazing Journey’ playing over a projected video of disability activism and abuses against disabled people, running backwards from the present day to the 1940s, and this framing device draws attention to the central thread of the abuses against Tommy, regardless of the nature of his impairments. In one prolonged scene, two specialists who might as well be from Atos attempt to prove Tommy’s fitness to work by timing their prompts of lights and buzzers to his rhythmic slapping of bells, only to have him ruin the experiment and then withdraw totally. The inability of the world around Tommy to deal with his lack of communication, only to then co-opt him as super-human (or indeed post-human, given he becomes ‘part of the [pinball] machine’), becomes an indictment of a society obsessed with celebrating disability when it manifests as superpower.
All of this makes the show’s rewritten conclusion more poignant. ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ is a cult of disability fetishism, in which annual awards (‘The Tommys’) are given out to the best fakers of disability. There is a clunky gag about a wrong envelope being given out, but better is the moment when one of the fakers walks off with the white cane of a (really) blind actor, who marches off shouting ‘I’m one of the real ones’. Later, when Amy Trigg’s Sally Simpson (here, a wheelchair user and childhood friend of Tommy) invades Tommy’s stage and is thrown off by police, it brings his world to a crashing halt. She is devastated by his revelation that his disability was a ‘choice’, and by the false promises of enlightenment through physical cure, and it is her rejection of him which leads him to change his philosophy, telling everyone to be happy with who they are; a message, of course, that turns his cult against him. But in a poignant twist, Tommy begins signing with his mother, and for the first time in the production the signs are not translated in surtitles or speech. Tommy reconnects with his mother, two Deaf people speaking their truth to one another, and their reconnection becomes central to the triumphant ‘Listening to You’.
Ramps on the Moon is surely one of the most important projects happening in UK theatre right now. By unpacking the myths, fetishes and misunderstandings surrounding d/Deaf and disabled communities, and showcasing the extraordinary work of an integrated company in a mainstream show, it is the action that it calls for. This is a loud show, and I only hope it’s listened to.
Tommy is on at the Nottingham Playhouse until 29th April 2017. Click here for more details.