REVIEW: Tommy, Opera House, Blackpool

The cast of Tommy at the Opera House, Blackpool
The cast of Tommy at the Opera House, Blackpool
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Taking the concept of a ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who finds fame playing pinball and putting it to a pounding rock score is possibly one of musical theatre’s stranger concepts.

And while this production comes in the year The Who’s Tommy marks 40 years since Ken Russell’s film version, there’s no doubting its place on the contemporary stage.

Antony Costa in Tommy at the Opera House, Blackpool

Antony Costa in Tommy at the Opera House, Blackpool

Seeing the show for the first time, I was apprehensive over what to expect; would the legendary 1969 album translate to today without feeling dated and would the sung-through score stand its ground?

Tommy is certainly not a classic musical tale of boy meets girl, instead, the young Tommy witnesses the dad he’s never met - believed killed in the Second World War - shooting dead his mother’s new love.

Shocked and stunned by the events, he seeks some form of solace in a mirror and retreats into his own world - never to speak or react to those around him again.

As young Tommy, local lads Jacob Wright and Harry Jennings impressed. It’s no mean feat to go against everything you’re taught in drama classes, about reacting on stage, to play utterly deadpan, as a child who can neither see nor hear.

And they’re balanced in the initially silent title role by 2009 X Factor winner Joe McElderry who starts the night as a narrator.

Oblivious to those who seek to do him harm, the wicked Uncle Ernie (a freakishly creepy Tony Bayliss) and Cousin Kevin (Antony Costa), Tommy stumbles across his skills at a pinball machine - a miracle ability, given he has no sense of sight or sound.

His loving parents seek solutions to no avail, until his mother - an emotional, feisty, belting performance from Ashley J Russell - comes to the end of her tether and breaks the spell her son has cast.

What follows is a whirlwind change for Tommy as he goes from trapped boy to man, traversing the conflicts of growing up while being hailed as some kind of god.

Tommy tackles some serious topics, murder, child abuse and bullying, without lingering and equally without trivialising.

The principal cast all excel.

Blue singer Costa as Kevin takes on the role this production’s director Paul Nicholas - who keeps up a rapid pace - created in the 1975 film, and with a dash of the John Travoltas, he plays both vulnerable teen and schoolyard bully with impressive skill.

McElderry’s vocals are perhaps not done true justice with the rock score, and are at times drowned out in the sound mix - especially if you’re not so familiar with the lyrics, something of a crucial matter in a sung-through show. But that’s well countered by the strength of direction and acting by all involved, as they keep the story to the fore.

In a brief cameo the supremely leggy Melanie Bright as Gypsy tackles Tina Turner’s film portrayal with awesome skill and sex appeal.

Although the ensemble is small, it fills the vast Opera House stage with energy and excitement, thanks to some fantastic choreography, showcasing a real blend of styles while paying worthy respect to the music, as well as the eras depicted, running from 1940 into the Sixties.

A rocked up jive in the prologue, Christmas and the lads’ Tommy, Can You Hear Me were among the dance highlights, but every number was perfectly presented.

For many, however, Tommy is all about the music, and the tribute it pays to Pete Townshend’s work, and this production keeps it powerful from the off. Guitarist Jake Willson makes regular appearances on stage, as the ‘spirit of Pete’ and the band gets a full reveal - for well earned credit - during the closing scene.

The mixed audience at the Opera House on press night reflected the appeal of this particular production, fans of McElderry and Costa rub shoulders with fans of The Who, as well as the general theatre-goer.

And as an Opera House exclusive, Blackpool audiences have got a real theatrical treat on their doorsteps for until Saturday, September 26.