I recently went to see the production of Tommy at West Yorkshire Playhouse. With shows by companies of disabled people or featuring disabled actors few and far between in Leeds, I was keen to see it. But I did have a bit of nervousness. I haven’t seen the film of Tommy, but I remember the hit song about the “deaf, dumb and blind kid”. I had an impression of a terribly dated, peculiar film that was probably best forgotten about.
It’s been revived by Ramps on the Moon, a programme delivered by a consortium of theatres committed to improving access, artistic and employment opportunities for disabled actors.
For a programme like Ramps to take on such controversial material sounds bold and challenging. The musical opened with a scene of an older Tommy in 2017 looking back over recent decades of disabled people protesting, bringing us to the present with the fightback by DPAC and others against the brutal cuts to benefits and public spending. This topic, incidentally, was one of the themes addressed in Shoddy, a disability art exhibition I organised last year [Incidentally the exhibition was covered by Frances Ryan in The Guardian in April 2016]. So I thought Tommy was off to a promising start, because I was hoping that the material had been brought up to date and given a new twist.
But I hated it. So much that I didn’t go back for the second half. Which is why I can’t pretend that this is a review. Instead, I’ll try to share some of my confusion about the production.
My overwhelming thought was: Why? Why did Ramps choose to put on Tommy? Why bring such awful material back to the stage? Why show such prolonged scenes of physical and sexual abuse of a disabled person (the BSL interpretation adding a further, graphic layer to the scenes)? If you have disabled people playing the part of the abusers, does that make it OK? Does it give a different perspective? Does it change the meaning of the content?
It was entirely the content that I had the problem with. The actors were all really good, with many outstanding performances. The cast of disabled and non-disabled actors worked together so well. Pairing Deaf and hearing actors together to portray characters and drama was really effective. The choreography and transitions from one scene to the next were brilliantly designed, keeping the story moving at an energetic pace.
But when the Acid Queen character was introduced, to cure Tommy through the power of her sexuality (or was she a drug pusher? Either way, this character to my mind was based on racist stereotyping), then I knew I’d had enough.
My confusion was compounded when it appeared that my companion and I were the only people who didn’t enjoy it, who found it oppressive, bleak and without hope. I talked to a number of people, during the interval and at the end of the show (I wasn’t in the auditorium, but heard the huge cheers at final curtain from outside). I talked to people who were involved in the production and members of the audience. Disabled and non-disabled people. When I shared my disquiet, responses were generally along the lines of: disabled people are treated terribly, it’s important to show it. Don’t I get that?
Well, not really. Even fans of The Who’s rock opera generally agree that the plot of Tommy is a mess and doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. From what I understand of the rest of the story, Tommy goes on to be a sort of Messiah and is later cured. So he is transformed from victim to supercrip. Clearly it’s fantastical and not meant to be taken literally, but I can’t work out what it’s trying to say about disability and about disabled people and I struggled to take anything positive from it. A major problem of the material is that it wasn’t remotely created from a disability rights perspective. If this sort of rubbish was written today, we’d be ripping it apart as ill-informed, offensive and perpetuating negative stereotypes.
So why revisit it? Surely we should be ignoring this nonsense rather than trying to reclaim it?
Meanwhile, my confusion grows. Renowned theatre company Graeae is involved in Tommy. Reviews have been positive, even glowing, including a review in Disability Arts Online itself which praises the show for being “clever and genuine” and “a victory for all of us”. Rather than victorious, I came away sickened and pretty upset.
There are much better vehicles through which we can communicate our experiences, our concerns and our hopes. And better vehicles for talented disabled theatre professionals and actors.
But that’s just my opinion. Feel free to disagree with me – it seems that everyone else does.