THEATRE : Deaf, dumb, blind and stupid

THIS IS the story of a small boy who saw his dad shoot his mum's lover. The experience made him deaf, dumb and blind. Then things got worse. He was bullied at school and sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie. Then things got better. He discovered he was a wizard on the pinball machine, found his voice and became a rock star. Then things got sort of ambivalent. He quit, went home, and invited the public into his parents' living room. This is the story of Tommy.

Don't even try to work it out. As a sequence of events it makes no sense. But then, back in 1969, not much did. When Pete Townshend wrote Tommy, he was a 24-year-old ex-art student looking for a thread on which to hang a cycle of rock songs. His main concern was The Who. He wasn't too bothered about the where, the what, the how or the why.

Transfer it, nearly 30 years later, to the stage and you have something that can't quite be called a musical. Tommy pulls your attention away from what was exceptional about the album (its music) and focuses it instead on what was banal (its fuzzy art-school pretensiousness). In Des McAnuff's production it sets about this perverse task with an awesome amount of energy and skill. It's a jumbo jet taking off in the wrong direction.

To be pedantic, just for a moment. A musical, unlike a cycle of songs, a concept album, or a concert, is still drama, and concerns itself at some level with the interaction of characters. Relationships, even. When you go to Tommy, you get everything but. The show opens with supreme slickness, slides dissolve on front and back screens, sets fly in and out, and actors hurry on and off. This, you think (for about 10 minutes) has panache.

Its premise, a small child traumatised by what he has seen, is plausible enough. It makes for a potent image. He stands in the middle of the stage, wearing white shorts and long socks, while those around him ask a very simple question in very loud voices: "Tommy, can you hear me?" (If he can't hear this, he won't hear anything.) At this point Tommy could be dark, affecting, off-beat. But it soon shows its origins. For all the wizardry, Tommy is considerably less attentive to its subject matter than wicked Uncle Ernie is to Tommy. Like a pop video, it restlessly picks up themes (trauma, child abuse, drugs, fame) and images (crucifixion, shattered mirrors), then leaves them suspended in the air.

The music is still thrilling; though more muffled than the album, and, obviously, lacking Roger Daltrey. The photomontage sequences that are obliged to carry a large burden of the narrative are state-of-the-art. They would be the highlight of any museum's exhibition of post-war Britain. There are attractive performances, too, from the younger members of the cast. As the teenage Tommy, Paul Keating, with his lean face, moppy fringe and plaintive voice, has just the right quality for the misunderstood boy-next-door. Nicola Hughes vamps it superbly as the exotic, long-haired, long-limbed Acid Queen, belting out "I'll tear your soul apart" in a wasteland setting of corrugated iron and fires. With "Sensation", "Acid Queen" and "Pinball Wizard", Act One builds to quite a climax.

Then it falls apart. For all its high-energy razzmatazz, there's something half-hearted about Tommy. There's a clunky, jolting divide between the high-tech montages and the low-tech staging. The scenes in a hospital, a court and a school are cliches. The other characters - Captain Walker, Sally Simpson - are so insubstantial they might as well be beamed in by hologram (there's an idea). Poor Kim Wilde, playing Tommy's mother, Mrs Walker, has to perform half her role as if she is in a dumb show.

Usually what's wrong with the second act is the first act. This is no exception. Tommy doesn't get interested in its own subject matter, so there's nowhere to go, except through the song list. Strictly speaking the songs are not theatrical. They are blasts (and blasts from the past). Tommy is middle-aged rock elbowing its way into the West End.

Since it was first produced, 11 years ago, at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme has come to be regarded as a modern classic. The playwright Frank McGuinness, a Catholic, achieved the distinctly unfashionable feat of writing sympathetically about the lives, fears and prejudices of Protestant Ulstermen. The Abbey Theatre's production which returns to Britain with an excellent cast nevertheless left me doubting its classic status.

McGuinness's journey into the Protestant mind divides, schematically, into four parts: Remembrance, Initiation, Pairing and Bonding. Each act has a theme, and even within acts, different characters embody themes. In Pairing, the action moves between the eight actors who are, you won't be surprised to learn, split into four couples. The preacher is in a church, the sculptor rests by an old carving, the bigoted Belfast shipyarders sit next to a huge marching drum, and the one losing his nerve tries and fails to cross a rope bridge. This emblematic writing, though remarkably intense in its specific detail, has a stark, predictable quality. In Patrick Mason's fraught production it feels stiff and inert.

The rarer scenes are the ones where the action runs away with itself, as if McGuinness had momentarily thrown away his essay-plan. There is a superb sequence - in an unfailingly well-acted evening - when the soldiers re-enact the Battle of Scarva with two of them carrying two of their colleagues on their shoulders. The ones representing King James simply refuse to follow history and accept defeat. In these unbuttoned moments McGuinness achieves a real lightness and depth.

The Donmar is running a series of four new plays this month, neatly tying in works from Cornwall, Scotland, Wales and Ireland under the banner "Four Corners". The first, Nick Darke's The Prussia King, is an engaging yarn about smuggling, romance and corruption in 18th-century Cornwall. Specially written for the Cornish company Kneehigh, it's unmistakably a community play, but it also travels.

Kneehigh presents this 80-minute tale on a raked stage (with creaking mast, kegs and ropes) that doubles as land and sea. Our hero, John Carter, better known as The King of Prussia (an ebullient Tristan Sturrock) smuggles and distributes "jack" (cognac). Trouble arises when the local grandee wants to sell it for a higher price in Bath. Darke's comic dialogue excels in the canniness, superstitions and logic of traders and smugglers. Kneehigh brings a punchy zest to these quirky exchanges. It's entertaining, but like a customs officer I kept patrolling the wilder shores of Darke's play to see if he wasn't trying to smuggle something more substantial through. If he was, it escaped detection. Perhaps you need to be local.

'Tommy': Shaftesbury, WC2 (0171 379 5399); 'Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891); 'Four Corners': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz