Ginger Hibiscus | Ginger Hibiscus | Tommy at the Greenwich Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | Tommy at the Greenwich Theatre
Ginger Hibiscus | Tommy at the Greenwich Theatre
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02 Aug REVIEW: Tommy at the Greenwich Theatre

Ashley Birchall as Tommy and The Company in The Who's TommyIf you’re familiar with “Pinball Wizard,” then you probably already know the premise behind Tommy, the story of a “deaf, dumb and blind kid,” who discovers an extraordinary talent for playing pinball. Breaching the wall of possibility and earning a cult following in the process, the musical follows him from traumatised child to celebrated teenager, via life-changing diagnosis, social rejection and confounding quackery, through song, dance and some rather exceptional guitar riffs. But if, on the other hand, you’re not familiar with “Pinball Wizard,” then prepare to spend your journey home from the Greenwich Theatre on a downloading spree, catching up on the entire The Who back catalogue and feeling the night disappear from under your feet, and into a haze of Quadrophenia.

A musical born from a concept album by the British rock legends, Tommy is inherently different to the jukebox musicals that populate the West End with their awkward shmushing together of unrelated songs, not least because a clear narrative is delivered through Townshend’s music, and because it boasts a consistency in sound and concept usually absent from the musicals that started life as something else. But the most startling difference is in how it’s so very easy to fall in love with Tommy without ever having even heard of The Who, or listened to their music.

Instead, director Michael Strassen clearly aims his version at audiences belonging to a more modern world than the one in which Tommy was written; a world where we’re used to the notion of anyone being famous for five seconds, where a child from Ontario can become the sensation that is Justin Bieber just by posting videos on YouTube, and a group of disparate teenagers thrown together into a band only have to tweet their whereabouts to be mobbed by screaming fans. Of course screaming fans were a feature of the ‘70s, but they’ve never been as transient as they are today, and Strassen’s Tommy taps into all that, considering and challenging the cult of celebrity, this bizarre religion of pop led by an unending stream of teenagers.

TOMMYAs with all things “pop,” there seems to be an unwritten rule that representations have to be accompanied by precisely-crafted dancers, and this dance-heavy production is no exception. Mark Smith’s vibrant and expressive choreography is well executed by a group of talented dancers, even if the female casting seems to have been determined predominantly on dance, rather than vocal, ability. The same can’t be said of Ashley Birchall in the eponymous role, though, who shows himself to be a strong all-rounder and more than capable of pulling off the lead role. Alongside him, company member Danny Becker delivers a noticeably impressive vocal, but most memorable is John Barr as Tommy’s Uncle Ernie, who captures both the likeable charisma and sinister side story of Jimmy Savile, in the kind of depiction that nightmares are made from.

All things considered, Tommy is a production that seems set to divide opinion. For some, the dance-heavy, tight-white-trousered camp fest will inevitably prove a bit much. But others, like this reviewer, will find it to be a trippy challenge to the cult of celebrity, or, at the very least, a deliciously abstract delve into the marvellous mind of Pete Townshend.

For tickets and information:
Venue: Greenwich Theatre
Dates: 29th July – 23rd August 2015
Images: Claire Bilyard

Star Rating

Ginger Hibiscus don’t like using stars as a headline; we think they’re too reductionist, and that decision-making based on stars misses the point of a review. Just as you wouldn’t judge a personality using a five-point scale, theatre is multi-dimensional. So have a read, and then look at the stars afterwards.
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