The publicity for this new revival of
Look at it as a dance piece and it's an altogether different experience. When they are on it, they really are on it.
If you're one of the millions of fans of The Who (and of 'rock opera' as a genre) then the theme of Pete Townshend's vision needs no explanation. However, if you're under 60 and so missed the original release, then you may need some help to understand this rather absurd allegory of the story of Christ. Bear with it...
As a boy, Tommy witnesses his mother's lover being killed by his father (returning from the war where he was presumed dead) and is told to ignore what he saw. Hit by what we would now call PTSD, this turns him into the "deaf, dumb and blind kid" (famously referenced in the show's most widely known song, Pinball Wizard), losing touch with reality, being ignored, bullied, perplexing all medical experts and (briefly and bizarrely in a three minute scene that really should be cut) being sexually abused. All this changes when it is discovered that he can play pinball machines really well which gives him celebrity status that grows into exaltation when he miraculously regains his senses following an argument with his mother. His fans quickly becomes followers, he plays up his superstardom but just as quickly renounces it, realising that everyone else has everything they already need in life, just as they are... You know, almost exactly the same as the Bible tells us Jesus did...
If that seems a brief, speedy synopsis that doesn't quite make sense, there's very little missed out of that as a story and so you've seen the problem that this show has from the outset. The plot - for what it's worth - isn't only flimsy but it's unclear how it develops in front of you and when each stage is taking place (the arc from Tommy regaining his senses to rejecting his power lasts little over 10 minutes with his divine status sandwiched in the middle). So any production needs to decide upon a strong theatrical style to help hold together what amounts to a string of vignettes scored with too many songs that seem to be 'album fillers' rather than aiding the development of the narrative. Both the film and the West End production used highly colourful, almost psychedelic visuals against the eerie stillness of the Tommy character to aid the viewer whilst adding to the dreamlike state of the story.
But Director Michael Strassen has opted for an altogether different style here - stripping away any extravagances and instead using a bare black and white stage (barring a few randomly placed white chairs and steps for depth), symbolic scene representation (a white rope becomes a doorway (twice) as well as a more obvious rope (twice) and the mirror in which Tommy constantly reflects is a small white wooden triangle passed around the cast). The small cast of 10 wear white too - occasionally adding a token of coloured costume to highlight a character change as they all multicast. The result is a vague, non-specific expressionist vision - a rather different style of representing the dreamlike qualities - which is strictly adhered to throughout the piece (although when it leads to the use of a moth-eaten furry cat toy and a large length of rock to represent the villains of the story (the Acid Queen and Uncle Ernie) it does nothing to help create the malice or threat needed). This consistency is clearly what makes this particular production unique and memorable - at least to look at.
The problem is that applying this style to a score and book that is also vague and non-specific gives the audience little help to understand what is happening before them, and makes it impossible to have empathy for any of the characters. Rather than give any structure to the loose narrative that there is, it removes any light and shade or visual 'punctuation' and so if you enjoy theatre that tells you a story or takes you on a journey, you may find this a struggle.
The production team - with Mark Smith as choreographer - have clearly decided to replace a narrative structure with a series of expressive dance pieces instead to stage "a world where we see the inner workings of Tommy" rather than explain the story Townshend wanted to tell. Everything is movement - emotions are danced, set moves are sashayed on and off stage, eyes and faces and mouths and hands are ablaze to fill every gap and show the highs and lows. This creates an energy in the very young, mainly stage school trained cast that is contagious. They flip, slap, jump, and EXPRESS like their very lives depend on it - not their characters' lives (as we are never sure who they are) but their very own skins. Even at a quiet matinee, it was clear that it is this energy that carries the audience along and is the unique selling point that will make people enjoy the show. You can't help but stand and clap along at the end as you've absorbed all this energy and want to share it with the classic (slightly too loud) rock guitar solo.
Look at it as a dance piece and it's an altogether different experience. When they are on it, they really are on it. For me, the most enjoyment is to be had when you put aside any desire to understand what is going on with a plot and enjoy the scenes where the small group are moving together and with every move so sharp and tight that it blows you away. On this level, the standout performers of the whole production are the cast members listed simply as 'Company' (Danny Decker and Scott Sutcliffe) and if you were just to watch them whenever they are on stage (which is most of the time), it would be enough to keep you entertained, enthused, excited… and a little exhausted.
If you want a night at the theatre to make you learn, laugh, emote or cry, this maybe isn't for you. But if you want to hear rocking guitar and keyboards from a bygone age with two or three good anthemic songs sang adequately, getting carried away by the energy of others, then you will have a great time. Put aside some of the things you have to compromise for this - no one can carry a high note, speaking voices (though rarely used) lack clarity or belief, and the mothball ridden cat doll - and you would have to be miserable not to leave cheering and clapping. It will be a great touring show that will do well in any local theatre across the country that need cheering up. Just know what sort of night you're going for and all will be well when expectations are managed.
Footnote: with all the focus and strength of this being on dance, surely there must be better ways to represent Tommy's disabilities than by visualising the Three Wise Monkeys....