Deaf and blind audience members will be able to enjoy any performance they choose of Tommy at Theatre Royal Stratford East .
Director Kerry Michael said integrating British Sign Language, captioning and audio description into his version of The Who’s rock opera only gave him “more colours to paint the story with”.
The show, with music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, is based on the band’s 1969 concept album and follows the story of Tommy - a “deaf, dumb, and blind” pinball champion.
After playing the Narrator in the original West End production in 1979, Peter Straker returns to stage as the Acid Queen, with William Grint as Tommy.
It arrives in Stratford from Wednesday, June 7-17 and will be the final show Kerry is involved in creating for the theatre as he is due to leave his role on December 31.
Why did you choose to do a new production of Tommy?
It’s great music, a great score and it’s a real state-of-the nation piece. It talks about how we label to people and what we do about fame. There’s lots of connotations about how we need people to tell us where our moral compass is in terms of celebrity. All those things that Pete Townshend wrote in the ’60s are still relevant now.
Had you seen the show?
Yes in the West End in the ’90s with Paul Keating (and Kim Wilde) in it. I remember it was one of the first shows ever to have projections. It was breaking new ground.
Are you a fan of The Who.
Yeah I am. I’m discovering them the second time round.
What do you like about their music?
They write really good stories. Tommy was one of the first concept albums and I like how they tell a story through individual songs. They were innovators.
What were the challenges of putting on this production?
It’s a big show. And the politics have all changed now. So it was hard trying to make innovative work for a contemporary audience.
We have 22 actors who sing, dance and play musical instruments and do British Sign Language (BSL) – so there were a lot of things to juggle.
How have the politics changed?
The Who wrote a song about being a deaf, dumb and blind kid [Pinball Wizard]. We wouldn’t use that language now. Of course in the show people don’t really know what is going on in Tommy’s brain and he is much more complicated than that description of him.
Have you had to change things?
No Pete Townshend was very clear about what he wanted so it is just about the context. It’s important to make sure people realise this is a post-war story. We have kept the language but just made that clear.
All the performances have BSL, audio description and captioning. Was it hard to incorporate all those elements?
No, not at all It makes it more exciting because every performance is accessible. Normally the hard-of-hearing would have to go to a certain one-off show with a signer in the corner.
But integrating it all into every performance means they can enjoy the complete experience. I had all these other ways of telling the story. I had all these colours to paint the picture with.
Will this be your last show with Theatre Royal Stratford East?
Yes, as far as I’m aware. It is sad but also exciting for Stratford East.
I have to announce the autumn season first and then I will announce where I am going. I have been there for 12 years hogging the best job in British Theatre so it’s time to let someone else have a go.
How does it feel to leave after all this time?
I have so many great memories. It’s the best job in the world.
What has been a highlight?
Opening Gerry’s recently. It is a new bar opposite the main theatre and inside is a 100-seat theatre. So putting another venue on the map in Stratford was really exciting.
What will you miss most?
The people. When you make a show you have all these different people, with different skills, coming together and sharing their expertise.
I will miss being a part of that.
I only live in West Ham Lane up the road though so I will enjoy coming back and being a punter.
Theatre Royal Stratford East , Wednesday, June 7-17, £5-26.
Keep up to date with all our articles on Facebook