‘Welcome to the Royal Academy of Music’s first ever rock show. Ear plugs available if you need them’ reads a sign in the auditorium. Putting on a rock opera as one of a selection of Summer shows performed by students of the Postgraduate Diploma in Musical Theatre seems like a canny move, given the proliferation of pop and rock based musicals in the West End. Not only did this turn out to be an inspired choice, but the talent and professionalism on display is a credit to the RAM.
We couldn’t fault Guy Retallack’s direction – the pacing is perfectly judged, and his production brings out the emotional depth and nuances of the story. The technical aspects of the narrative are brilliantly handled – with a lengthy and almost entirely instrumental prologue telling the story of Tommy’s origins, the complex action unfolds clearly and concisely. We weren’t surprised to read later that Retallack received an award nomination for his 2005 Manchester production of Tommy.
On stage the story feels more visceral than on screen, and ultimately more rewarding than the visual spectacle of Ken Russell’s 1975 film, our only previous reference point. This production is based on the 1993 reworking of the story by Des McAnuff and Pete Townshend for a production on Broadway which was intended to make the story more suitable for a theatrical production. Townshend’s themes of alienation, abuse, exploitation, and the cult of celebrity are just as contemporary today as ever and have a psychological truth about them. There are no one-dimensional sinners or saints and the final message of forgiveness makes a powerful and moving climax to the show.
Leo Miles as the adult Tommy brings a dark and edgy quality to the character. The song ‘I’m free’ is not unambiguously joyful – he is free from isolation, but not from the problems of everyday reality. Meanwhile young Tommy, played with touching simplicity by Robert Rees, is the facade that everyone else sees. The company is used to brilliant effect to remind us of Tommy’s objectification and exploitation as he is constantly escorted and manoeuvred about by neighbours, doctors and ‘disciples’. The choreography and movement expresses all this skilfully and economically. The moment when Tommy is psychologically ‘freed’ is a stroke of genius, with the traumatic childhood memory being literally rewound in front of him.
It’s difficult to pick out individual performances from such an excellent cast, especially as so much of the power came from the ensemble playing, but Hannah Blake deserves a special mention for her powerful vocal and acting performance as Tommy’s mother, with Andrew Dyer, Marc McBride and Sanaz Lavasani all excellent as Uncle Ernie, Cousin Kevin and the Acid Queen.
It is ironic that we should have to come to a training institution to see such a polished production, and perhaps even more surprising that it was a Rock Opera, given the RAM’s reputation for more traditional musical activities. Patron and former student Sir Elton John would be delighted, we are sure.