Yesterday evening, at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, I saw something which, I can’t help feeling, everyone should go and see. It was a production of Tommy, The Who’s concept album turned fully-fledged musical, given by Ramps on the Moon (directed by Kerry Michael, with choreography by Mark Smith), and the cast was a hugely talented and passionate bunch of people. Around half of the cast were disabled, and half non-disabled; and two of the lead characters were given singing voices by other actors (Tommy, and his mother Nora). The audience, and I, loved it.
The show – which is about to go on tour, by the way – is part of a six year project by Ramps on the Moon to ‘achieve a step change in the employment and artistic opportunities for disabled performers and creative teams, and a cultural change in the participating organisations to enable accessibility to become a central part of their thinking and aesthetics.’ And the word ‘aesthetics’ is an important and crucial one here, because much of what I saw last night was extremely beautiful, particularly the choreography. It was beautiful in a way that was new to me: the whole show was signed by the actors, with signing often incorporated into the dance, and those dancing were sometimes dancing in wheelchairs. Jokes were made about disability, and doctors and quacks in the 1950s and 1960s struggled with what now seem hopeless and sometimes cruel ‘cures’ and ‘treatments’ for Tommy. The casting was an invitation to look differently at both the story unfolding in front of us, and our own preconceptions about theatre.
It is a simple fact that if you never see someone do a particular thing, and you have no reason to imagine that they ever do, you will probably suspect that they can’t. Like the chances that my grandparents would have known how to roll a spliff. Or that my parents’ adorable but slightly hopeless springer spaniel might be able to walk to heel. Or that I myself could do a backflip. (I have no intention of permanently damaging myself trying that one out, so no comments to that effect, please.) The Paralympics has done amazing things to raise the profile of the physical prowess of disabled athletes. But the sight of a D/deaf actress dancing around the stage in a musical is not one familiar to most of us… or at least to me, and I fully acknowledge my own ignorance in this regard. And that, as Tommy brilliantly demonstrates, is a crying shame and a wasted opportunity. Very little needs changing, evidently, to involve a much broader spectrum of talented people on the stage and in the band. The visibility of disabled musicians and actors is certainly improving, but Ramps on the Moon want more, faster, and I wish them all the success in that endeavour. Those of us who don’t encounter D/deaf and disabled artists and musicians frequently can learn a great deal from the skills and new perspective that their input can bring to a show.
At the risk of a single spoiler, I will tell you this: at the start of the show, we see Tommy in 2017, sitting alone, huddled in his dressing gown, as his benefits are cut further and further. When arts funding is under threat for everyone, and the very validity of musical literacy is under question in the press, we would be wise to remember that there are further cuts that make it harder and harder still to allow access to this kind of training. I’ll be watching for the next production from Ramps on the Moon and booking my tickets as soon as I hear about it. In the meantime, here are the tour dates – just go. I guarantee you a great night of theatre, and the chance to reconceive of just what that might look and sound like, in the best possible way.