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Dateline: 24th November, 1997

The film of Tommy was a collection of superb, good or OK songs which Ken Russell used as an excuse for some of his wildest cinematic excesses. It was not a "rock opera", as Pete Townshend (and the subsequent publicity) claimed. It was not even a musical, not really.

In its latest incarnation, presently touring, it has been rearranged, reinterpreted, given some new songs and a (minimal) book. It has become music theatre.

But it isn't great music theatre. It's not in the Boublil and Schönberg, Lloyd Webber or Sondheim league. The touring version is impressive for its technical brilliance and complexity. In that sense it is the most impressive piece of touring music theatre I have ever seen - as the seemingly endless rows of Luckings' pantechnicons lined up outside the theatre on the Saturday night, ready for the get-out, attest! But the West End music theatre aficionado would expect - at least - this level of technicality: we're just not used to it touring.


The major difference between the show and the film is that the latter was basically a series of set-pieces showcasing the individual stars, whereas this version is much more of an ensemble piece. Sure, Paul Keating is good as Tommy, but, apart from the fact that he is playing the eponymous hero, there's nothing to set him apart from the rest. The company work well together, handling all that they are required to do - act, dance, sing, make (very rapid) costume changes - with skill and conviction.

As a critic, I normally have a pretty good seat. This time I went as an ordinary punter and got the only seat I could, three in from the end of the second last row of the stalls. The view is slightly restricted (upstage far left is hidden), so if the director has not taken into account the differing configurations of auditoria and stages that the show might visit, it would be very clear immediately. I have to say that only once was I aware of missing something, which, given the size and complexity of the show, is pretty good.

On the other hand, however, no character ever dominated the stage. I was always aware of the surrounding space. Nobody, as it were, sucked me in and concentrated all my attention on what (s)he was doing.


But that's what this show needs. It is not a strong enough vehicle to hold the attention without charismatic performances. In its new (i.e. 1992) form it does make more sense than the film, but not a lot more. I'm Free, for me, still signals the end of the show dramatically: what happens next is anti-climax.

Now I know I'm going to be told that this is the crux of the whole show, that it's all about how Tommy is turned into a media star, which is what he doesn't want: he just wants to be a normal person (hence the song We're not going to take it). Have a look at Alisa's Tommy Page to see this argument put forward. But it simply doesn't work. There is no sense of any media feeding frenzy, just Uncle Ernie cashing in (Tommy's Holiday Camp), a couple of thugs as (slightly SS-looking) security guards, a few flashguns going off, and, of course, the story of Sally Simpson.

Once Tommy is free, there's no build-up of dramatic tension: the show's song cycle origins show clearly here. A song cycle tells its story through a set of songs, each of which is entirely distinct from the others, each one summarising a particular situation, with, occasionally, one being reprised (perhaps with slightly different words) to announce a similar situation to one that has happened before.

A perfect example is Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance: as a song cycle (particularly in the Marti Webb version) Tell me on a Sunday worked well, but once it was transferred to the stage as a piece of theatre, it died, as our colleagues in the variety world so succinctly put it, on its arse!

So it is with Tommy. Perhaps there is a great piece of music theatre to be made on the subject of media exploitation, but this isn't it.

All in all, I found Tommy a little disappointing. It's a song cycle, and in those terms it works well. As a piece of music theatre it is ultimately unsatisfying. Pity, because I was so looking forward to it.

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©Peter Lathan 2001