Review: The Who’s Tommy (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)

Kerry Michael directs the second production as part of the Ramps on the Moon project

The Who’s iconic rock musical Tommy is given fresh life in this new production which brings together deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors.

Created by the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich and directed by Kerry Michael, it’s a kaleidoscope of colour, song, music and action which is hard to resist.

The second production in the Ramps on the Moon project, which brings together six regional theatres and Graeae Theatre Company to create a series of integrated productions, this Tommy takes a classic, shakes it about and comes up with something totally new.

Currently being performed at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, this is very much a Tommy for the modern age – packed full of resonance. With the story being based around a ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ and the production showing how barriers can be imaginatively surmounted in theatre, the show has a power beyond its original narrative.

Fans of the rock musical will also appreciate the fact that The Who’s Pete Townshend, who wrote the original music and lyrics for the rock musical back in the 1960s, was so keen on the new production he has not only been involved but has also created two new songs.

William Grint is Tommy – the youngster traumatised into his own world who finds his outlet as the pinball wizard. Grint, who is deaf, gives a tautly emotional performance, capturing the uncertainty and isolation of the young Tommy. Matthew Jacobs-Morgan and Julian Capolei take on the voice of Tommy and the three work in perfect synchronicity.

So too Donna Mullings pulls the heartstrings as Tommy’s mum Nora, a woman who wants to do what’s right but finds her own son a mystery. Shekinah McFarlane is such a great voice for Nora that, at times, the two become one in the audience’s mind.

Choreographer Mark Smith has done a wonderful job of combining signing with dance so that those of us who don’t sign aren’t quite sure whether we are watching a word or a movement, thus creating a unique kind of poetry.

Peter Straker, who played the Narrator in the original West End production of Tommy, is given a new role as the Acid Queen, a gypsy who attempts to cure Tommy. The Acid Queen is enlarged in this production with a new song in the second half and Straker proves that not only can he belt out a song like a diva but he’s also a nifty mover.

Neil Irish’s set features two giant moveable metallic walls which take the audience from home to street, to youth club to stage with ease. Irish’s costumes are a colourful combination which move the drama forward from the military style of the 1940s into the swinging sixties.

Ramps on the Moon is an ambitious six year project which explores how theatre can benefit from integration. Last year it brought us Birmingham Rep’s The Government Inspector and this year it takes a totally different direction with Tommy. But what both productions reveal very clearly is the real richness offered by integrated theatre.

With at least four more Ramps on the Moon productions in the future, there should be plenty more opportunities to stretch the boundaries of production and create some really thoughtful and imaginative theatre in the coming years.

Tommy runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 27 May then tours to Theatre Royal Stratford East and Sheffield Theatres.