The Who were never one of those bands I latched onto other than for a few of their well-known tracks. But I’m aware of them, and interested in how you go about turning four sides of vinyl released in 1969 under the name Tommy into a live event that’s been packing out theatres across the country.
If you were to present a theatre with a script that had the same story as Tommy but without its pedigree, they’d tell you to go away and rewrite it until it made sense. The first half tells how a boy born in the aftermath of WW2 first loses his dad, and is then brutalised by other men in his family. It’s like they condensed a year of EastEnders episodes into twenty minutes of misanthropy with musical accompaniment.
That bleakness is leavened by vibrant theatricality – there are 22 performers who, as well as acting, can be relied on to sing and dance and play instruments, which is almost enough to make you overlook the distinctly flaky narrative. It turns out Tommy – a deaf, dumb, and blind kid – can sure play a mean game of pinball. Naturally, this leads to people following him, and his stepdad opens a chain of Butlins-style camps where you can play pinball with Tommy impersonators. And become enlightened. Maybe.
That sort of reductionism misses what’s at the heart of it – what we’re witnessing is Pete Townshend’s take first, on the abuse he experienced as a child, and second, at the bewildering impact of The Who’s worldwide success on him. For sure, it could have done with being developed further as a story, but that’s not why most people are in the audience. They came to see a show based on an album that means something to them. And that’s what they get.
As a spectacle, Tommy is a triumph. The stage design is inventive, lighting is spectacular, and there’s never a moment without something going on. What impressed me was the quality of the music – the material The Who concocted is stretched thin over the duration of the narrative, but allowing for that, it’s delivered brilliantly by superb singers, and a band who really do feel like rock musicians, not polite and proficient session players.
As for the story, it’s no more crackers than a lot of classical operas. They get away with nonsense because it’s all sung in those European languages that are soon to be banned thanks to Brexit. Tommy is what it is. And this show does a brilliant job at bringing it to life.
Tommy is at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 29 April 2017.
Nottingham Playhouse website