THEATRE : Deaf, dumb, blind and stupid

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Indy Lifestyle Online
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).