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Tommy, a musical, cripped. New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, 3 April

As a part of the publicity for Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability 3-4 years ago I produced a Top Ten songs of disability. No. 10 was the Who’s ‘Tommy’. I received some cross correspondence from another popular music scholar with family experience of disability (a disabled child, as I remember), who criticised the inclusion of such an, in his view, mocking piece, a song which was a(nother) high-profile travesty of disability culture and expression. I have been hugely intrigued to see this production of Tommy, by Ramps on the Moon in collaboration with Graeae Theatre Company, the leading UK theatre group for deaf and disabled artists.

In Shakin all Over I wrote about ways in which bands like the Who could ‘explore and return to tropes of disability over lengthy pop careers.’

 [They] stuttered the attitudinal voice of English youth in 1964’s ‘My generation’ (‘People try to put us d-d-down’), sang and acted ‘That deaf dumb and blind kid [who] sure plays a mean pinball’ in [Tommy], while guitarist Pete Townsend was widely reported when he spoke out recently about the experience and the dangers of rock music-induced hearing loss: ‘I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf.’

From youthful stutter to a hearing impairment more readily associated with older people, from the band that first sang, when they were young, ‘I hope I die before I grow old’ (it didn’t happen, not to the songwriter or the singer, anyway): cripping the Who offers us a different set of insights into the band’s body of work across the decades, which is also to do with refiguring the generational pull of youthful pop and rock. As singer Roger Daltrey said in 2006: ‘Can you see us onstage in wheelchairs?… It will still be us, still be the same music.’

Tommy was first a rock opera in 1969, then a musical film in 1975 (directed by Ken Russell), then a stage musical in 1993. Director Kerry Michael tells us in the programme that the aim with this new production has been to integrate ‘an exciting and inclusive disability aesthetic.’ The photomontage of disability activism shots at the start was I thought a bit clunking, nor did it really fit with the narrative to follow; perhaps it’s intended as a corrective to the musical’s own skewed representation of disability.

This version is mostly the 1993 stage musical one, with an additional song and some extra lyrics especially produced by Who guitarist and original writer Pete Townshend. (The additional song, a bluesy lament for lost youth and spark from an old performer—so surely it’s about Townshend himself, or Daltrey…—is for the Acid Queen to give her (here, him) a presence in Act II.) This matters because the original ending was changed: from Tommy urging his followers to become ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ like him as a route to enlightenment, to a cosier one in which we are urged not to be like Tommy, but to look for our own inner strengths. I should say that the end felt uplifting and moving for us last night, as, with house lights up, the entire cast sang and signed to us a message of inclusion and understanding. If that sounds corny, it really wasn’t.

The infrastructure of inclusion around the performance may be kind of standard for Graeae-style productions—a stage model and costumes props in the foyer for visually impaired theatre-goers (right), hearing loops, surtitles, signing, and more—but it does also regularly challenge much everyday theatre practice or rhetoric of inclusion.

Notwithstanding the massive flaws in the original story—psychical crisis makes boy multiply disabled, then it becomes a satire on religion and the counterculture? Plus, today for younger audience members (there weren’t that many tbh last night): what is a ‘pinball’?—this Tommy is terrific. It’s full of energy and movement, and only a couple of the large deaf and disabled cast seem to perform as though they are auditioning for Glee or Hairspray. The live band, centre stage at the back, is tight and loud.  

Especially in Act I, exploring the musical via a disability aesthetic shines through. What really strikes convincingly are some of the experiences of youthful disability: the medicalisation of the disabled body (tests, tests, and anxiety about tests), the bullying and abuse of the vulnerable. The sexual abuse of Tommy by Uncle Ernie as he sings ‘Fiddle about’, played by two hands spot-lit on an otherwise darkened stage, is powerful. Here the disability aesthetic makes full sense. Also there are some great hi-energy ensemble numbers (‘Pinball wizard’ overwhelms the stage) and other, well, weird ones (‘The Acid Queen’ as a coked-up Labelle in drag, feat. star turn Peter Straker, who appeared as the Narrator in Tommy in the 1970s).

The New Wolsey Theatre has a fruitful collaborative partnership with Graeae Theatre Company. (I wish my own city, regional rival Norwich, had such a dynamic small theatre, really.) I saw Graeae’s brilliant Ian Dury jukebox musical Reasons to be Cheerful here a few years ago, drove down from Lancaster for that. Was thrilled to then see on tv the band reprise ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ live at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics. Graeae are a company to be cherished.

In Tommy, several lead parts are played by deaf actors—Tommy, his mother Nora. Nora has a singing double, Tommy has two singing doubles. In the performing world of what Ian Dury called Normal Land disabled actors and musicians often still don’t get a look in (even when the character is meant to be disabled, for Goodness’ sake), half a part, no part at all, crip part given to TAB actor. On Stage Graeae, a disabled actor can require two or even three human presences. There is I feel a powerful statement of cultural value in that prosthetic gesture, which speaks of solidarity and love. Bravo, brava.

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Reasons to be Cheerful: Graeae Theatre Co. do Ian Dury (again)

Part 4 of the reasons to be cheerful must be the revival of this play / musical, which brings together the performance of Graeae—Britain’s leading theatre company for actors and workers with disabilities—with the songs of Ian Dury, arguably Britain’s highest profile disabled pop singer in his day. Graeae was founded in 1980, the year after Dury’s no. 1 single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ and the year before his career-shattering disability campaign single ‘Spasticus Autisticus’.  This production is a pretty loosely-scripted play that offers a plot involving some late 1970s punk rockers hanging on, sometimes off,  live versions of a dozen or so Dury classics. I was delighted to hear the early single ‘Crippled with nerves’ included (and reprised), since I’ve use that song title for some work I did on Dury and the polio/pop generation myself. (It forms part of chapter one of my forthcoming book Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability.) I saw the play at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich over the weekend (a terrific space by the way, and some great upcoming shows). I’d first seen Dury on the Stiffs tour at UEA in Norwich in 1977, so there was a nice symmetry about going back to East Anglia to catch up.

But why no ‘Hey hey take me away’? Maybe because it is Dury’s most harrowing and direct song about disability, and the abusive treatment of (and by) youngsters in residential special schools? I suppose such a song doesn’t really fit the feelgood if righteous atmosphere of the play. And for a play full of audience participation—more a rock gig that a play in fact—with a dozen and more characters and musicians on stage sharing banter, and twiglets, with the public, not doing the call-and-response style ‘I’m Spasticus!’ at the end of what was actually a fiercely, fiercely powerful version of that still brilliant song felt a misjudged missed opportunity. By the way, giving that song to the outstanding female lead, physically disabled punkette Nadine, who sings it after she’s overheard herself described as a ‘sympathy shag’ by her boyfriend, makes it convincingly angry and angrier. Hello to you out there in Normal Land.

The revelation was a fabulously sexy staging of ‘Wake up and make love with me’, where the centre stage was empty but for a lowlit spot circle with BSL signer and dancer Debbie er signing the song and its acts with hands, body, eyes, and singer John Kelly, a central still presence. It’s easy to overdo Dury, and lose the subtleness his voice and face could have in all the Oi! Oi! cockney stuff (see Andy Sirkis’s occasional lapse into gurn in the recent biopic), but that’s exactly what Kelly doesn’t do. Instead there is a careful kind of underperformance from him, in which his voice does almost all the work. This is a guy in a motorised wheelchair who is not, as they say, severely able-bodied, and most of whose choreography consists of little moves of the wheelchair, circles on the stage, or an occasional rhythmic shift of the head and neck on ‘Sex & drugs & rock & roll’ (just like Dury used to do). A black-gloved hand on a wasted arm holding a mic stand ‘like it’s a surgical appliance’ (as a review once described Dury) elegantly makes the link of a disabled pop performance tradition: Gene Vincent-Dury-Graeae. The erotic charge of Debbie and Kelly’s performance on ‘Wake up’ sets up the terrifically mundane post-coital last verse wonderfully: ‘I’ll go and get the post/And make some tea and toast/You have another sleep love/It’s me that needs it most’. In this song and in the accusation and reclamation of ‘Spasticus’ the play moves most confidently away from any easy punk nostalgia.

What a show! 13 people on stage throughout—actors, musicians, signers, facilitators—and a big busy set that’s a cross between a rock gig stage and an Essex pub, with a drum kit centre-rear and a pool table at the side, with a slide show overhead showing all the lyrics, captioned dialogue, and some fun animations. Oh and bunting and strings of lightbulbs round stage and stalls to give a salty flavour. (Dury contracted his polio in the seaside town of Southend.) A great cast in ensemble, and some terrific musicians too. In authentic punk style, the show’s joins and edges—its rips and torns—as well as the raw and obvious emotions of youthful anger and desire are all on display. Most of the singing responsibilities are taken by the two men in wheelchairs. OK the script and plot could have done with a bit more work, but the power of the show, that has the audience clapping every number and whooping and screaming for more at the end, lies in its capturing the performance of the music. More: it reminds us of how a popular music artiste had important things to say about being disabled, and that those things and that culture still matter.

And there are some great gags too. The lead punk Vinnie breaks the frame to tell us that that singer John Kelly actually wrote as a youngster to the BBC in 1981 when he heard that ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ had been banned. ‘What did you say in your letter, John?’ asks Vinnie. ‘Dear Director-General of the BBC, You’re a cunt,’ replies John to raucous laughter, adding with feigned disbelief, ‘And I never even got a reply.’ Vinnie’s dad, a working-class socialist activist, does a swearing rant against the Tories (this is 1979 remember), finishing with The Tories are … the Tories are… He’s tired himself out—he’s dying you see—and then he remembers the Dury introduction to ‘Plaistow Patricia’: The Tories are [smiles to audience] … ‘arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks!’ And away goes the band, nearly as good as the Blockheads, which is a BIG compliment.

Graeae’s Reasons to be Cheerful is touring England and Scotland until April 2012. See it or be unhappy. At the end you will demand encores plural, loudly.

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