5 star The Who’s Tommy at Greenwich Theatre

Ashley Birchall as Tommy and The Company in The Who's Tommy.
Ashley Birchall as Tommy and The Company in The Who’s Tommy. Photo Credit Claire Bilyard

Can an iconic rock opera album, first released 46 years ago and made into a movie remembered with great fondness by many people, actually be any good as a musical theatre performance in 2015? That was one of the many questions that sprang to mind as I headed to The Greenwich Theatre to see the new production of “The Who’s Tommy”.

Covering a period from 1940 to 1963, The Who’s Tommy” tells the story of a young man – Tommy (Ashley Birchall) who is suffering from a psychosomatic illness – the physical symptoms of which are that he is deaf, dumb and blind – due to a traumatic episode involving his parents, Captain and Mrs Walker (James Sinclair and Miranda Wilford), when he was a child. As well as his parents, Tommy’s family consists of his lecherous old uncle Ernie (John Barr) and evil cousin Kevin (Giovanni Spano) who are both happy to use Tommy’s illness to their own advantage. Tommy himself – devoid of outside distractions – retreats into his own mind where he often dreams of being a ‘normal’ boy. However, Tommy’s illness has a surprising and very welcome – at least for his grasping family – side effect, and he is propelled into the public spotlight due to his ability as a true wizard pinball player. Tommy’s parents want him ‘cured’ of his illness – they try various options, offered by doctors, hypnotists, electrotherapy specialists and even the very odd Acid Queen (Carly Burns) until one day, his mother literally hits upon a cure. Once more Tommy’s uncle and cousin cash in on their relative and turn him into a messiah-like personality surrounded by devoted followers (Danny Becker, Alice Mogg and Scott Sutcliffe) as Tommy takes another step on his ultimate journey to who knows where?

Carly Burns as Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy
Carly Burns as Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy Photo Credit Claire Bilyard

I had so many concerns about seeing “The Who’s Tommy” brought to life. Not least, would it look horrendously dated – I mean how many youngsters even know what a pinball machine is these days? – as well as being very, very politically incorrect. For example, these days we would use the expression deaf, blind and mute to describe Tommy’s condition. Sounds good but doesn’t exactly fit with songwriter Pete Townshend’s lyrics, especially in the show stopping ‘Pinball Wizard’. I shouldn’t have worried. Director Michael Strassen and Designer Nik Corrall obviously understand the show on every level and have put together a production that, whilst being superb in its own right, is also faithful to the original. I loved the set – triangles abound – which included the band, under Musical Director Kevin Oliver Jones, on stage throughout. I also thought the costume design superb – white (signifying I guess the innocence of Tommy) was the order of the day, except for odd moments when the original costume was intermingled with another – particularly effective with Captain Walker’s RAF uniform. Every inch of the stage, and in fact some of the auditorium, was used to great effect, not just in acting but also in some very intense dance scenes (Choreographer Mark Smith), as the audience followed Tommy’s journey over twenty three years.

Giovanni Spanó as Cousin Kevin and Ashley Birchall as Tommy in The Who's Tommy.
Giovanni Spanó as Cousin Kevin and Ashley Birchall as Tommy in The Who’s Tommy. Photo Credit Claire Bilyard

Every member of the cast was really fantastic. John Barr was both wonderful and horrendous as Uncle Ernie, a nasty piece of work that was literally only after everything he could get from Tommy. Even though Uncle Ernie gets some fantastic songs – ‘Fiddle About’ and ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ in particular – he really is the most unloveable of people. A Great piece of acting from John Barr. The other really nasty character is the sadistic Cousin Kevin, and Giovanni Spano obviously really relishes this meaty (and at least once, rather cheeky) role as he torments his unfortunate cousin. But, when it comes down to superlatives, there just aren’t enough to adequately describe Ashley Birchall’s portrayal of Tommy. Starting as a wide-eyed innocent during the complex storytelling ‘Overture’, Ashley is completely mesmerising as the troubled young man who goes through so much over the course of the two hour run, until the final rendition of ‘Listening to You’. Tommy, as a character is on stage for pretty much the entirety of the show and Ashley never lets his concentration slip once as he portrays every facet of Tommy’s life. His vulnerability when moving around the stage is heartbreaking to see, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that wanted to go and help Tommy as his family members mistreated and abused him. But, as well as giving a great acting performance, Ashley has a fine singing voice delivering all his songs and particularly ‘I’m Free and the emotionally charged ‘See Me, Feel Me’ beautifully.

Despite all of my original qualms, I am really happy to say that this production of “The Who’s Tommy” really delivers the goods. My companions and I were totally blown away by this superb production from start to finish – in fact I was so mesmerised by Tommy’s story I forgot to finish the drink I had taken in at the start and it just sat in my hand while I concentrated on this truly awesome piece of theatre.

5 Stars

Review by John Mortis

Press Night: Friday 31st July, 7.30pm
Performances: Tuesday – Sunday 7.30pm, Saturday 3.00pm (No perfs 2/4 August)
Tickets: £25, £20 (Concessions), £15 (Previews)
Box Office 020 8858 7755 | www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk

Saturday 1st August 2015