Musical: Tommy; Shaftesbury Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
The plot of Tommy is absurdity itself. A young boy witnesses the murder of his mother's lover by his war-hero father. He subsequently loses the ability to see, hear and speak, and spends his days staring into the mirror. He becomes a teenage pinball champion, regains his senses, is worshipped as a messiah and rock 'n' roll idol, then gets disillusioned with the world and is rejected by his fans. As big-budget West End musicals about autistic Christ figures go, the Who's wild (and wildly pretentious) rock opera sounds about as appetising as one of Pete Townshend's solo albums. Yet Des McAnuff's gaudy production is breathtakingly imaginative and, for a show built around such a flimsy conceit, almost insanely rousing. It feels crisp and new - the only thing that's dated is the idiom, but then I don't suppose "Pinball Wizard" would have the same pizzazz if it ran: "That kid with learning difficulties / Sure plays a mean pinball."

The key to the show's success is that it manages to sustain grandeur without self-aggrandisement. There was a fundamental flaw in Townshend's original writing: he genuinely believed that his appropriation of messianic symbolism made Tommy the greatest story ever told, when in fact it was just a tenuously connected series of psychedelic daydreams played out to a soundtrack of humourless pub rock.

The songs are still there of course, and few of them sound like anything other than album filler tracks (the sweeping "Listening to You" excepted), but the vigour with which they are played amounts to GBH, and the score is all the better for the band's irreverence.

The faults that stall Tommy are the same ones which the piece has always buckled beneath - the silly half-songs that judder the plot along, not to mention the hideous musical porridge that descends toward the end of Act 1 and makes you wish you were deaf, dumb and blind. (Like "Fiddle About", a big musical number about child molestation; the show would lose nothing but tastelessness by shedding it.)

The Christian allegory still surfaces but McAnuff wisely underplays it, instead cramming in as much lunacy as possible. He's grasped the essence of the piece in a way that Townshend and Ken Russell (who directed the 1975 film) could never do. They punished their audience; McAnuff rewards our faith in this ludicrous text by layering set-pieces which function as invigorating entertainment without the undertow of bombast. It's the greatest concert, fireworks display and acid trip you ever had, all in one.

John Arnone's impossibly ambitious set design and Chris Parry's sizzling lighting play an enormous part in McAnuff's vision, which is closer to the restless, boundless cinema of Godard or Scorsese than anything that mainstream theatre is used to accommodating. Backdrops, sets and even eras change so quickly that it feels more like time-travel than theatre. One astonishing set-piece has Tommy clinging to his pinball table as it spins and thrusts like a bucking bronco, the taped roar of an invisible audience blurring with the real audience's hysterical approbation.

The cast are less memorable - you sometimes forget that Kim Wilde is on stage as Tommy's mother, even when she's singing, while the Acid Queen (Nicola Hughes) seemed rusty and lacklustre and Uncle Ernie (Ian Bartholomew) was a superfluous irritant. But McAnuff, Arnone and Parry share their triumph with the 19-year-old newcomer Paul Keating, who is hypnotic in the lead. He doesn't act; he doesn't have to. Dressed inJacko-esque blazing white, he has a beautiful balletic grace and a poignant, searching voice. He even ventures an arrogant little windmilling motion with his arm when playing pinball. Luckily, it's one of the few traces of Pete Townshend left in this brave, outlandish, unmissable show.

Booking: 0171-379 5399

RYAN GILBEY

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