Date: 17 March 1996
Originally published in: Guardian weekly (UK)
Written by: Dan Glaister
The premiere of Tommy – “A new musical”, was one of London Theatreland’s big, schlocky events; stars, sequins and crash barriers combining to stop the traffic. Inside, Theatreland had been taken over by the Rockocracy: fake tans, the odd medaillon, even men in sunglasses thronged the foyer.
Tommy, for those who have been elsewhere, is one of the prime examples of that 1960s turkey, the rock opera. A traumatised deaf, dumb ‘n’ blind boy finds freedom, truth, but not justice, through pinball. Tommy becomes a 40-point bonus bell messiah, until the people move on. Fickle, fame.
Not for Pete Townshend, though. The guitarist and songwriter of The Who wrote this in 1969. Tommy grew up and became a concept album and Ken Russell film. Today, you can buy the CD-Rom.
Back then, Tommy was an anti-high art statement. Now, The ‘Oo are the establishment and Pete’s stage version of Tommy has run on Broadway. Regardless, it is the film that is familiar, and comparsons are difficult to avoid. This is an energetic production, perhaps too energetic. Blind and you risk missing a whole scene. Go to the toilet and young Tommy will have become teenage Tommy.
The whol business gets off to an impressive start with a trademark Townshend power chord cutting through the chatter before the house lights go down. A lengthy overture ensues until it becomes apparent that the overture has finished and the whole thing is going at breakneck pace. Where the film had Roger Daltrey as Tommy and Ann-Margret as Mummy, the stage has Paul Keating, plucked from stacking supermarket shelves to overnight celebrity, as Tommy, and Kim Wilde, as Mum. Keating is impressive, but there are only glimpses of him in the first half. Before that, Tommy is portrayed aged 4 and 10. You feel great sympathy for the small children involved.
Flying in from the wings, Keating makes telling appearances as a sort of Tommy ex machina. He has an intensity and a little figure, although not the voice to match Daltrey. Still, his voice isn’t bad, which is more than can be said for most of the company. What everyone wants to know about is the baked beans. Ann-Margret wallowed for all she was worth in a sea of baked beans. Would Kim Wilde do the same? Unfortunately, stage and screen parted on the bean scene: there were no beans, no chocolate sauce and no bubbles. There was a fun time, though. The air guitar in the aisle confirmed that.