The Who’s TOMMY, a New Wolsey Theatre production in collaboration with Ramps On The Moon, is touring the UK
In this production of The Who’s iconic rock musical, which originally bloomed from the story which ran through the tracks of their 1969 album Tommy, new life and meaning are breathed into this much-loved work. This production is the second piece of theatre which Ramps On The Moon have been involved in, an organisation which promotes the employment of disabled performers in the theatre industry and more widespread accessibility for disabled theatregoers. A parameter that they set is that the cast of each production should include a roughly equal mix of disabled and non-disabled performers, a concept which works beautifully and movingly in this production.
Something that this production of Tommy particularly brings to the forefront is the treatment of disabled people throughout the ages, through the suffering of Tommy as the “deaf, dumb and blind kid”, and the inclusion of a slideshow of images in the opening number which shows the struggles of disabled people for equal and fair treatment in post-war Britain. Tommy is let down by a medical system that lacks sympathy, does not understand him and does not try to, and his vulnerability is exploited closer to home by those who are supposed to look after him. This exposure of the lack of disability rights is not left in the 20th century, however, as we first see of Tommy as an elderly man in 2017, in the wake of disability benefits being cut.
The plot starts with the meeting of Tommy’s parents, Nora (Donna Mullings) and Captain Walker (Max Runham). They marry and Nora falls pregnant as Captain Walker returns to war; however, soon after he is reported as missing in action and is presumed dead. Nora eventually moves on and finds a new partner, Frank (Alim Jayda). Four years after his disappearance, Captain Walker unexpectedly returns home, and surprise at discovering he has a son turns to anger when he meets Nora’s new boyfriend – they fight and Frank shoots Captain Walker dead, which Tommy watches in the mirror. The trauma of witnessing this was, in the original production, meant to be what caused him to become “deaf, dumb and blind”. The spectre of Captain Walker, gleaming in the lighting in white dress uniform, haunts the evening and Tommy himself for the whole show, touchingly repeating the musical phrase “See me, feel me, touch me”.
Tommy suffers mistreatment throughout his childhood, most disturbingly from his family. Perverted Uncle Ernie (Garry Robson) and his torture of Tommy is described in the song “Fiddle About”, a relatively graphic number which was extremely uncomfortable to sit through. The abuse continues with Cousin Kevin (Lukus Alexander), a school bully who shows Tommy no mercy, sticking pins in him, belittling him and worse. This, combined which the obvious failure of the healthcare system to help Tommy, and the profoundness of casting disabled actors to tell Tommy’s story, gives the show importance, making it less of a rollicking rock musical and more a work of protest. Tommy only becomes cherished and supported once he is believed to be a miracle boy because of his proficiency with playing pinball, which extraordinarily elevates him to the level of almost Messiah-like celebrity – however, once he stops being perceived as miraculous, people stop caring about him once again.
A further dimension is added to the production by the use of signing and the voicing of the actors who cannot sing. Nora is given a beautiful singing voice by Shekinah Mcfarlane, and Julian Capolei and Matthew Jacobs Morgan sing for Tommy (William Grint). Special mention must also be given to West End icon Peter Straker, who is magnificent as the Acid Queen (a prostitute who makes Frank believe that she can heal Tommy through sleeping with him).
The staging and choreography of Tommy are impressive, although quite overwhelming at times, which makes it an exhausting show to watch; and furthermore, almost everything is very loud. While it is most likely to be enjoyable for fans of The Who who are familiar with the music and the plot, having never seen the musical before or heard the music, I found the plot quite illogical and baffling. This show triumphs in many other ways, but there is a lack of clarity and subtlety. I was bowled over by the talent of the cast and the show’s bold comment on disability rights, however, I found the story too confusing to fully enjoy the show, leaving me discomforted at the end. Despite this, I hope to see more productions in collaboration with Ramps On The Moon in the future, and moreover, hope to see the cast of Tommy in many more shows.