Rock of ages still has the ability to shock

First night; Tommy Shaftesbury Theatre
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The Independent Online
Pete Townshend, surveying his masterwork from the stalls, must have enjoyed the start of Tommy last night.

The first chord of the overture boomed out while the lights were still on. First-nighters standing and chatting were beaten into shock submission, just as record-buyers were when The Who's rock opera came out 27 years ago.

I approached this conversion of rock opera to family musical with some trepidation. The Who's Roger Daltrey told me he disapproved of what Townshend, Tommy's composer, had done to the work. But any fears were dispelled in this entertaining, fast-paced, show.

The tale of a deaf, mute and blind pinball player who becomes an international messiah was never wholly convincing even in the 60s. Des McAnuff, the director, wisely makes each number a choreographed sequence to a pop-art- style period tableau.

Ian Bartholomew's well-judged pervert Uncle Ernie is a black-market spiv. Hal Fowler's cousin Kevin is a teddy boy in drapes. Nicola Hughes' excellent acid queen is at the mercy of her pimps in a 50s London back-street.

The show could have been even better by having a proper dialogue between the songs, and some actual character development. But as a series of comic cut-out cameos, it was an uplifting affair, particularly in the special- effects-assisted second half.

Eighteen-year-old Paul Keating, who was stacking shelves at Tesco six months ago, was a snarlingly assertive Tommy for the 90s, where Daltrey had been an angelic hippy for his era.

The audience clapped along to a happy evening, which seemed assured of a long run and of becoming a staple school play when that run is over.

And if it lacks some of the menace and emotion of The Who's original, that's showbusiness.