Ramps on the Moon: The Who’s Tommy – reclaiming the musical for disabled people

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Tommy is the second production as part of the Ramps on the Moon initiative, a collaborative consortium of six regional theatres and Graeae Theatre Company. Each of the six theatres will eventually produce its own show. Tommy is New Wolsey’s offering, though it was directed by Kerry Michael of Theatre Royal Stratford East. Sophie Partridge caught the show on press night at New Wolsey on 4 April 2017.

The cast of Tommy

The cast of Tommy. Photo Credit: Mike Kwasniak

I had high hopes for Tommy and was excited to see it. Even more so when I found myself sitting up-front at New Wolsey, the closest I’d ever been to its stage − apart from when I’ve been on it!

Opening with an older Tommy, sat in his dressing gown, we see a backdrop of images of present-day disabled people, protesting against the cuts, including myself at the ILF closing. The show then moves into a dynamic dance sequence, a taster of Mark Smith’s excellent choreography to come.

Having seen the Westend production of Tommy in ‘96 revolving around Kim Wilde, I knew from the start this wouldn’t be boring. The first half flowed (almost) seamlessly from one literal slice of Tommy’s life into another. Neil Irish’s metallic set cut an imposing backdrop throughout.

Both performers playing Tommy and his mother are Deaf, and the pairing of Donna Mullings as Nora, with her singing-voice performer, worked totally. For me, the tripling up of sensitive-yet-strong William Grint as Tommy with his two singers wasn’t quite as successful.

Tommy; Lukus Alexander

Foreground – Lukus Alexander as Cousin Kevin and William Grint as Tommy Photo Credit: Mike Kwasniak

In contrast, the relationship between Tommy and his father Captain Walker, played wonderfully by Max Runham – was both fantastic and moving. The scenes of abuse and bullying perpetrated on Tommy were truly harrowing, particularly with signing being less is more; I’m not a BSL user but the creative use of the signs, were explicit.

In a great twist to the original, Peter Straker plays the Acid Queen with old fave Garry Robson as Uncle Ernie. Fresh blood in the form of Amy Trigg as Sally Simpson and Lukus Alexander as the horrendous Cousin Kevin, are also worth a mention. I’d have liked to have seen more of Amelia Cavallo who usually plays more leading roles. In Tommy, she was part of the ensemble and was taking various pairs of glasses on and off, presumably to signal when the various characters were visually impaired or not.

The fluidity of the first half was slightly broken in the second but returned for the finale. On press night, not all dialogue was captioned and as a non BSL-user, Tommy’s voice was still lost to me at points. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the original script, but I found the newly added conversation between Sally − who had also been silenced by her parents – and Tommy, difficult. However, it was interesting to see interaction between these two characters, and it may have benefitted from being pushed further.

Had Tommy had been pretending (cripping up) when he failed to communicate, or is he so traumatised by witnessing his father’s killing that he can’t? He discusses this with Sally in the second half, having re-engaged with the world. In the scene that follows there is a Cripping Up/Tommy award ceremony akin to this year’s fiasco at the Oscars. Whilst I enjoyed it, I do wonder if mainstream audiences will get the reference to non-disabled stars like Eddy Redmayne playing disabled characters and being lauded for it? And, more importantly, will they ‘get’ Tommy as a representation of a real disabled man?!

The cast of Tommy

The cast of Tommy. Photo Credit: Mike Kwasniak

Much has been made of so-called inclusive casting in theatre. Personally, I often find it is clumsily done, and struggle to suspend my disbelief. But to my huge relief that wasn’t the case in Tommy, the handling of it was spot on.

Tommy is both clever and genuine, with an ensemble cast of so many great voices and performances. As the titular character triumphs on the pinball machine towards the end, it feels a victory for all of us “Deaf, ‘Dumb’ and Blind” kids. This is a real and empowering production which reclaims Tommy the Musical, and rocks it our way.

Tommy is touring New Wolsey, Ipswich (30 March – 15 April), Nottingham Playhouse (19 – 29 April), West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (4 – 13 May), Birmingham Rep (17 – 27 May), Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (7 – 17 June) and Sheffield Theatres (22 June – 1 July). See DAO’s listings for full details.