The battle of Brighton" cried the Argus newspaper in 1964 after the mods and rockers descended on the seaside town for a violent face-off. One group, in their sharp suits and parkas, rode scooters and listened to Jamaican ska and British beat music; the other favoured leather, motorbikes, greasy hair and rock'n'roll. These seaside skirmishes were seemingly forgotten until 1973 when The Who's Pete Townshend, pop's sharpest chronicler of adolescence, wrote Quadrophenia.
It was a rock opera hailed by Townshend himself as his masterpiece and which in 1979 would make it to the big screen. Franc Roddam's iconic film had the greater impact, galvanising a mod revival at the tail end of punk. Thirty years on, fans still scrawl on the walls of "Quadrophenia Alley", the dingy street where Phil Daniels did the nasty with Leslie Ash.
If this stage version, directed by Tom Critchley and overseen by Townshend himself, shows anything, it's that the themes are still bitingly relevant. Mod was born from youthful disenchantment while buying wholesale into post-war consumerism. A scattering of parkas in the audience points to the nostalgia still felt for the film that articulated the passions of a generation. But while the clothes and the music are steeped in Sixties Britain, its reflections on tribalism, individuality, rebellion, violence and drugs are as potent now as they ever were.
The title refers to the psychological problems of Jimmy, the protagonist, whose personality has splintered off in four directions. Jimmy's mental health is skated over in the film version, though here he is played by four actors. Thus, we have Jimmy the Romantic, Jimmy the Tough Guy, Jimmy the Lunatic and Jimmy the Hypocrite. Sketches of a dysfunctional home life reveal dad's own personality disorder and a mother who looks the other way as she tries to hold the family together. Jimmy's little brother sits on the floor playing with boats, oblivious to his own terrible fate.
In between these sad snapshots we are introduced to the mod scene, notably its rituals (scooters, suits, speed) and its characters (among them The Girl, the object of Jimmy's desire, and Ace the Face, a peacock with a shameful secret). Townshend's vision certainly puts paid to the cliché of Swinging London, presenting a depressed capital city in which the gulf between teens and their parents seems unbridgeable and the hedonism on display appears more desperate than fun. After the first act we travel to Brighton where the violence escalates along with Jimmy's internal breakdown. Played out on a slowly spinning stage bathed in dry ice, it captures the essence of what was once a dingy seaside town.
If the characters are thinly drawn, it's a result of there being no dialogue – that and the show's druggy chaos. Jimmy's four-way personality can make it hard to detect the charisma that made him a leading light of the mod army. Those who haven't seen the film or studied the album might also struggle with the finer points of the story.
Ultimately, it's up to the songs to tell the tale and render the characters three-dimensional, and in the places where they don't quite succeed, they easily carry you along through sheer force of passion. You certainly can't argue with classics such as "The Real Me", "Bell Boy" and "Love Reign O'er Me", the latter sung with stinging intensity by The Girl and later by Jimmy. Raw and introspective, Quadrophenia offers up some of the most heartfelt songwriting of Townshend's career. "My Generation" may not be on the original album, but you can hardly blame Critchley for shoehorning it in. Like the show itself, it's a song that speaks to anyone who has suffered from the affliction that is being young.
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