It was early this year that a good friend of mine and fellow actress, Donna Mullings, came over to my house with a favour to ask. She had a video audition to send off to a casting director and she needed it filmed urgently.
Armed with only an iPhone, laptop and floor lamp we shot her audition piece in my dining room. The song was Pinball Wizard and the show that she landed a role in was The Who’s Tommy.
I was thrilled for her. I knew that the musical was based on the 1969 concept album by The Who so there would be some juicy rock songs to enjoy and I also knew that the production of Tommy was a groundbreaking opportunity, part of a 6 year programme of work to initiate change in the mainstream theatre world.
Tommy is led by New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich in association with Ramps on the Moon; a consortium of theatres across the country who have committed themselves to accessibility and inclusivity. Each theatre has agreed to commit to several things including integrating both disabled and non disabled artists and prioritising accessibility in their productions.
They state that their shows must have an equal mix of disabled and non disabled artists; that the creative team must also be a 50/50 split between disabled and non disabled practitioners and also that accessibility must be embedded within the production.
Tommy meets all of those points with its diverse cast of 22, captions, British Sign Language and audio description. So when the show came to Nottingham’s Playhouse last month I couldn’t wait to see how it all came together.
The venue itself is gorgeously modern and easy to access. I was also offered a free ticket for a carer/communicator to join me. Entering the theatre, the layout is clear and deaf theatre goers are given seats in the middle area of the stalls – perfect for viewing the captions comfortably.
The lead role of Tommy is played by William Grint, a deaf actor previously known for award winning short film Chasing Cotton Clouds. As the show opened to a signed song by Tommy, William signed clearly and emotively, evidently confident in his role.
We then met Donna who played his Mother, Mrs Walker. The show guided us through her journey; the romance of meeting and marrying Captain Walker (Tommy’s Father), her grief when she was told her husband was missing and presumed dead, and her lustful passions with her new lover. It was a great role with varying emotions for Donna to really demonstrate her skills as an actress.
Returning to the plot, it is when Captain Walker returns alive and well and Tommy witnesses his Mothers lover shoot his Father dead that Tommy locks himself in a “blind, deaf and dumb” world.
We then follow Tommy’s encounters with other people as he grows up and see how his talent for playing pinball despite being blind and deaf brings him fame and success.
The storyline is unusual and uncomfortable at times especially when Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie. But the integration on stage between the artists and the languages was exceptionally interesting.
Every deaf cast member had a hearing member who acted as their voice, singing whatever they signed. This form of shadowing was very effective and meant the signing cast could lead and participate in a song instead of sitting out the musical numbers.
I was also impressed by the high standard of dancers, notably Hearns Sebuado who is a deaf performer based in London. His technical brilliance stood out during the choreography of Pinball Wizard and his superb timing meant he blended in effortlessly with the group of hearing dancers.
Acting and movement wise, there was little difference between the deaf and hearing cast. Sure, you could tell which performers were trained dancers and who were not. But overall the energy and power on stage was definitely that of an integrated, tight-knit group. There was no segregation.
My only bugbear about the show was that in certain places the signing didn’t fuse as naturally as it could have. In the song “it’s a boy” when Mrs Walker gives birth to Tommy, a group of nurses begin singing and signing but the slow pace meant the signs looked unnatural, overly exaggerated and leaning towards the novelty element rather than accessibility.
Likewise in the song Acid Queen when there’s a killer solo by renowned actor Peter Straker he’s accompanied by two sign singers. Here the movement of the sign language was more alike to a dance routine than BSL which meant the meaning was lost. It looked fabulous but without the lyrics above the stage I wouldn’t have had a clue what they were saying.
That said, there were times when the signs and music fused perfectly. Captain Walkers song “See me, feel me” translated his dreamy voice beautifully and “Pinball Wizard” used fantastic dance choreography with sign language to depict the lyrics. The choreography by Mark Smith of Deaf Men Dancing was intricate, clever and catchy.
I also take my hat off to Alim Jayda, the actor who played Mrs Walker’s lover. A hearing CODA (child of deaf adults,) he fluctuated brilliantly between BSL and spoken English and his talents in dance and acting are undeniable.
Overall, what I loved about the show the most was how the actors’ disabilities aren’t really showcased as such but they’re simply merged in with everyone else. It makes you think if everyone on stage is different then surely that means we are ultimately all the same?
There was a truly lovely feeling of unity that resonated from the cast which reverberated back into the theatre hall. The show ended with a standing ovation and many people, myself included, left the theatre singing/signing 😉
With so many cast members with varied types of disability there might have been a slight risk of the actors feeling like the token “fill-the-blanks” disabled person. But there is no denying that Ramps on the Moon are out to challenge misconceptions about who can be on stage and break barriers for artists nationwide. What a brilliant production to be part of!
Since seeing the show I have noticed casting calls from the same consortium of theatres looking to meet more deaf/disabled actors and also work with more deaf/disabled people on their creative teams.
So if you’re a deaf or disabled artist or wanting to work in performing arts, check out http://www.rampsonthemoon.co.uk and find out how you can be involved.
Here’s to many more shows like Tommy!