1975. The year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, Fawlty Towers was first broadcast on TV and Bohemian Rhapsody was number 1 for what seemed an eternity (it was nine weeks but when you’re a kid – that’s an eternity!). It was also the year that Tommy, Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s ground-breaking concept album (itself released in 1969) about the deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball, was released. Those events really do feel as though they belong to a different age, which I guess forty plus years is. Of those four events Tommy, the film as opposed to the album, has probably worn least well and whilst the album contains songs which are genuine classics and therefore withstand the passage of time and taste, the story has perhaps not fared as well. Or at least it hadn’t.
Ken Russell’s film is definitely a thing of its time. That’s due predominantly to the psychedelic intermingling of the precepts of Indian guru Meher Baba and Russell’s idiosyncratic film making. Russell is a love him or hate him kind of director and I have to say that I definitely don’t love him. As a film I find Tommy a confused and disjointed affair, a bad trip which even the presence of Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson can’t rectify. And yet, despite that, it has a certain appeal.
A great deal of that lies not with Russell’s visual interpretation of Pete Townsend’s story but on the strangeness of the story itself. I remember first listing to Tommy – some years after its 1969 release I must add – and not being able to buy the idea of someone playing pinball being a huge, global, spectator phenomenon. The idea that people would watch someone else playing a game like pinball simply felt bizarre. I’m sure that’s what Pete Townsend intended but he must be smiling now as, in that strange way life has of imitating art, watching other people playing video games is now a multi-million pound industry and seems likely to begin to rival conventional sport for headlines over the next decade. And so, forty eight years after the release of the album, Tommy, as with all the best sci-fi, beings to look rather prescient.
Whether that was a factor in Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre’s decision to co-produce a new version of Townsend’s rock opera is perhaps of less relevance than the fact that Tommy is a great fit for a theatre which has built a national reputation for actor/musician productions. Co-produced with Ramps on the Moon, Tommy will see a cast of 22 playing live on stage in what is doubtless, even by the Wolsey’s high standards, going to be a spectacular production.
Playing for nineteen performances from March 30th – April 15th , this production is a revival of the Broadway show, rather than the film. One interesting element of the production for me will be how it deals with some of the less palatable aspects of a story which modern audiences would find unpalatable if presented as Russell and Townsend originally did. Keith Moon’s leering, vaudeville comic, portrayal of Wicked Uncle Ernie singing Fiddle About is a part of the film which Russell got wrong, and which highlights the fact that the film definitely was made in another era. I expect the Wolsey version will show this crime and its impact on Tommy’s life in a radical different manner to the film.
Given that the central role of Tommy portrays a severely disabled person, it is good to see that access to the performance for disabled people is being given prominence. Audio description, BSL and captioning performances are often included during a production’s run but for the nineteen performance run of Tommy at the New Wolsey every performance will have, what is being termed, a creative use of these access tools. The production of Reasons To Be Cheerful, in which signing, audio description and captioning were woven into the narrative and drama unfolding on stage, comes immediately to mind and given the technological advances in the intervening period I’m expecting this aspect of the production to enhance the overall experience for everyone, not just the disabled. In addition to this there will also be a Relaxed and Dementia Friendly performance on the 12th of April at 1.30 for which the tickets are £10 and £5. Currently there are still a few, but it is a few, £10 tickets available for some of the evening performances and after that prices rise to between £16.50 and £29.50, although there are discounts for those who require audio description, captioning and BSL.