I am a huge fan of The Who, but I always felt Tommy – their 1969 concept album/rock opera – was overrated. One of my first proper gigs was to see Pete Townshend, and I even devoted a large chunk of my dissertation to his band; I just never got the fuss about Tommy. Pinball Wizard, yes, but as a whole, the album just doesn’t have the visionary punch of Who’s Next (which came out of Lifehouse, another rock opera project) or the gut-wrenching, muscular emotion of Quadrophenia. Townshend is a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve, but with Tommy there were too many unexplained layers to peel away to even get to the wounds he was trying to talk about in 1969.
So Tommy’s journey to Broadway and the conformist narrative of musical theatre may have been inevitable for Townshend, but such a conventional, commercial home for such a complex piece is surely fraught with artistic compromise. And any edge Tommy may have had seemed to have completely faded away with the dreams of Woodstock, bell bottoms and Roger Daltrey’s fringed jacket.
However, I am now a convert. I get it, finally. Suddenly Tommy feels like it was ahead of its time. It makes perfect sense. Disabled consortium Ramps on the Moon have given Townshend’s rock opera a voice beyond The Who and transformed it into a vehicle that feels current and urgent, a show that knows it represents the marginalised in society.
With an integrated cast of deaf, disabled actors, non-disabled actors, and musicians, a huge context is layered onto this show that exposes, challenges and reminds us of historical attitudes to disability, trauma and abuse. The show begins in 2017 with the fight for disability rights and the cuts now being imposed. We are then transported back to post-war England, Tommy’s birth and his childhood, a place of darkness, violence, selfish hypocrisy and sexual abuse. The obsession with a “cure”, the patronising pity, and the cruelty of this time is real, and any nostalgia is given a huge reality check. By owning this show so completely, the company create powerful satire, the sort that should make people feel uncomfortable and angry.
Both Tommy (William Grint) and Tommy’s mother, Nora (Donna Mullings) are played by deaf actors, and both are shadowed and voiced by back-up performers. Ideas about mirrors echo in the show, and the inner and outer worlds of the characters, articulated in this literal way, add a hugely powerful dimension. William Grint is exceptionally expressive as Tommy and, together with Matthew Jacobs Morgan and Julian Capolei, he creates a multi-dimensional character in stereo, whose presence fills the second half as his pinball-playing hero emerges from childhood trauma. It feels like a huge, surreal game is being played here, the set opening and closing like huge pinball flippers, characters disappearing then reappearing: you can almost imagine how many points each moment is worth, and who is winning.
The music itself is a powerful narrative. Every song being captioned above the action and simultaneously signed on stage doesn’t allow for much escapism, but it does give us pause to appreciate Townshend’s lyrics, so often lost among the thundering score. I’m left feeling that director Kerry Michael almost presents Tommy the musical, the cultural icon, as a dream or idea, like a parallel universe: a Tommy world where race, disability and gender melt into power chords – and a world that feels more hopeful, more legendary as a result.
The Who’s Tommy is on a UK tour until 1st July. For more details, click here.