Touring; seen at Theatre Royal, Brighton

Opened 3 September, 2009


The bland, standard contemporary musical-theatre singing voice would be of no avail here. The Roger Daltrey bellow is what’s required, and what’s delivered, in this stage version of Pete Townshend’s 1973 work. Unlike Franc Roddam’s film version, which used the album as a soundtrack, Tom Critchley’s staging meets the term “rock opera”, being entirely sung-through. The songs from Quadrophenia proper are augmented by a clutch of other Who tracks (including both sides of their first single, as the High Numbers); this smacks partly of overkill, especially since Townshend worked allusions to the likes of “My Generation” and “Zoot Suit” into the piece itself, but more simply of rampant commercialism. (On a sequence of Who classics in Act One, Kevin Wathen’s vocals also go beyond Daltrey territory into a Tom Waits/death-metal gutturalism.)
Elsewhere, Critchley and his co-adapters treat Townshend’s vision with too much reverence. It is acknowledged both that the composer misunderstood the nature of schizophrenia and that the division of protagonist Jimmy into four facets (a hangover from an earlier, uncompleted musical autobiography of the band) never really took firm shape in any case; it is therefore pointless to have four Jimmys constantly onstage, and still more irrational to give first-among-equals status to Ryan O’Donnell as “Jimmy the romantic” (the aspect supposedly based on John Entwistle, of all people). But in this tale of a young Mod’s growing disillusionment with all the structures around him – family, fashion, music – and his near-self-destruction, Jimmy’s love for The Girl (unnamed) is given exaggerated prominence. The ending of the work, with “Love, Reign O’er Me”, has always been ambivalent at best, but here it assumes a further dimension of desperation in being used to provide something approaching the mandatory glittery, affirmative final-curtain moment.
That said, no aspect of the show is sold short (except Sophie Khan’s orthodox modern-musical set design, all bare stage and gantries). The band deliver both tonal complexity and rock drive, with Steffan Iestyn Jones and Greg Pringle forming a rhythm section that can stand comparison with Entwistle and Keith Moon. The tour continues until November, and if we weren’t exactly re-enacting the 1960s beach battles between Mods and Rockers (which no doubt led to the choice of Brighton as the location for the press performance), there were certainly a number of middle-aged theatregoers who were volubly glad they hadn’t died before they got old.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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