Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2
Opened 5 March, 1996

Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy has taken a quarter of a century to reach the London stage in its definitive version. The word "spectacular" fails to do it justice.

Townshend and director Des McAnuff have fiddled about with the lyrics and storyline familiar to some from the 1969 album and Ken Russell's 1975 film. Captain Walker is now murderer rather than victim, and Tommy's later messiahhood is shot through with bitter cynicism. Most puzzlingly, it is deemed acceptable to portray sexual and violent abuse, mob brutality and even murder, but drugs get scarcely a look-in. It is impossible to tell on the strength of Nicola Hughes's admittedly electrifying portrayal why the Acid Queen is so called.

But the basics remain. Young Tommy, on witnessing a murder in the family, becomes deaf, dumb and blind, finding solace only in his reflection/alter ego in the mirror and, later, his astounding talent for pinball. Following his spontaneous cure, he becomes an exemplar of sorts, but in this version, after a period of sinister basking in his new status, he rejects the adulation in favour of the redemptive power of normality.

Steve Margoshes's orchestrations make a few concessions towards the mainstream musical market, but the score remains identifiably rock rather than diluted pop. Indeed, at one or two points Colin Welford and his ensemble produce the finest arrangements I have ever heard of given numbers. The lyrics have been more comprehensively rewritten in some cases to tie in more closely with the narrative, in others simply because Townshend has had the chance to tinker.

Kim Wilde as Tommy's mother is called upon to act (often wordlessly) more than she is to sing. Generally, she handles the task admirably. Ian Bartholomew makes a plausibly unpleasant Uncle Ernie a world a-way from Keith Moon's grand Guignol, though Hal Fowler's Cousin Kevin is a little too florid and operatic. But it is Tommy whose performance matters most. Nineteen-year-old Paul Keating is, alas, not quite up to the role. He acts charisma rather than possessing it, with the consequence that the cured Tommy comes over less as magnetically moody than just plain truculent.

The real star of the show, however, is the design. The scenery ranges from Gilbert-and-George-style projected backdrops to a whirling wall-of-death pinball machine. Curtains of white and coloured lighting combine with (thankfully underused) banks of video screens. Costumes come in comic-book slabs of colour, with often frantic dance numbers amid which Tommy stands always alone in brilliant white. The combined effect is richly hallucinatory, and qualitatively different from any other West End musical.

Whatever qualifications are raised about moments, minor aspects or individual performances, Tommy as a whole is to use an outmoded but thoroughly appropriate term a trip. It even leaves Ken Russell's lysergic visuals on the starting-block. You won't see nothin' like it in any amusement hall.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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