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Stuart King

Review: TOMMY at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Tommy - Theatre Royal Stratford East The Who’s 1969 concept album forms the basis for Pete Townshend’s rock opera, last seen in London’s West End back in 1996 at the Shaftesbury Theatre; the story of a “…deaf, dumb and blind kid (who) sure plays a mean pinball”, wowed audiences then, and does again here.

We first encounter Tommy (William Grint) as a young boy whose father Captain Walker (Max Runham) returns belatedly and unexpectedly from the war to discover his war bride has taken-up with another man. Events unfold which leave Tommy in a self-imposed, semi-catatonic state and his vulnerability soon draws the attentions of a lascivious “fiddling” uncle (Garry Robson) and a sadistic bullying cousin (Lukus Alexander). Despite many tests, the medicos remain confounded by Tommy’s state and offer little hope of improvement until he demonstrates a supernatural ability at pinball. With fame and media attention thrust upon him, riches quickly follow and he finds himself leading a 60s cult of followers with near pop-star status and again becomes the focus for manipulators and freeloaders.

In this incarnation — a joint collaboration between a consortium of 6 regional theatres and proactive disability advocates Ramps On The Moon — 22 performers deliver “Tommy” on a budget, but with no less energy, enthusiasm and talent. Director Kerry Michael and choreographer Mark Smith have largely ignored the restrictions of the space and kept everyone employed with a host of characters, costume changes and sharply cued entrances and exits.

This is an exceptional effort which completely reframes the way theatre for deaf and disabled people is made and can be accessed. Everyone commits their skills and professionalism wholeheartedly in both their individual moments and overall team effort, but it would be churlish not to single out veteran Peter Straker who is still belting stratospheric rock notes (in his 70s) as Acid Queen, Shekinah McFarlane who gives voice to Tommy’s mother Nora and Julian Capolei and Matthew Jacobs-Morgan who do the same for Tommy himself. The band of course do everything in their power to blow, shake and vibrate your socks-off and clearly have a great time doing so… my ears were still ringing the next morning!