Saturday, 25 July 2009

REVIEW: Quadrophenia

(This is the site’s 200th post.)

In 1973, The Who released an album that would change the world forever, influencing rock contemporaries and spreading through the ages, ultimately resurfacing in the grunge movement (Eddie Vedder cited it as a primary influence), jam bands (Phish covered it in full at a Halloween gig), and even pop-punk (American Idiot).

That album, was, of course, Quadrophenia (duh, it’s in the post title) and it is, without a doubt, one of the greatest works in the history of rock music. A densely layered concept piece, Quad bridges The Who’s definitive loud sound - everybody plays lead on every song - with the synths, strings, and musical complexity of the burgeoning progressive movement. Quad’s beauty lies in its ability to harness these sounds without giving in to the pretentiousness of prog: this is an album about the explosion of a movement, of violently encountering the transition from youth to adulthood, and of desperately trying to find oneself in the world. It’s bleak, harsh, and yet spiritual, ending with the potential for hope.

Like Tommy and the abandoned Lifehouse project, Quadrophenia tells something of a bizarre story as only The Who could get away with. It’s 1964, and a lad of 16 named Jimmy is leaving school, getting a well paying but distinctly working class job, and spending his money on the speed and fashions required to stay in with the mod scene that he follows but never quite connects to. As his life begins to deteriorate, Jimmy finds himself split into four personas modeled on the members of The Who: a tough guy (Roger Daltrey), a romantic (John Entwistle), a nutter (Keith Moon), and what’s labeled a hypocrite but really more of an ineffectual and observer (Pete Townshend, who wrote and scored the entire album.)

When things hit bottom at home at the end of the first disc, Jimmy takes off for mod central in Brighton, only to find his solace shattered in the off-season with the city nearly deserted and after a disappointing encounter with one of his heroes.

It sounds simple, but deciphering the story in full requires reading the album’s liner notes or seeing a video of the 1996-1997 tour with its linking narration. The songs themselves give little away, reflecting emotion and a personal journey but not providing a wider frame of context. It’s of little surprise, therefore, that when Quadrophenia was turned into a film in 1979 that much of the original story (and music) was discarded. It also guarantees that fans familiar with the film but not the album are going to be completely lost at Quadrophenia, the musical.

Returning to roots, the stage Quadrophenia dispenses with any sort of dialogue and sticks to the music and attempts to tell its story through lyric and dance. As suggested above, this is quite an undertaking, especially as the original double album is just over 85 minutes and the production truncates one song (“I’ve Had Enough”) and cuts the second leitmotiv instrumental (“The Rock”), which brings the story to a head on vinyl. Making up the runtime are seven early Who songs, some of which were brought out of cold storage for the film, and reset into context. For those familiar with the album, the additions in the second act will feel like padding. For everyone else, they’re going to fit right in. Either way, the added tracks add a sense of authenticity to the period - Quad is very much later Who, and doesn’t sound like anything from 1964.

But does the adaptation actually work? For the most part, yes. Pete Townshend himself has contributed to and supervised director Tom Critchley’s adaptation, teaching the cast about the period and ensuring that his vision is accurately represented, much as he did with the original Broadway production of Tommy. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems (more below), but overall the show is stunningly true to the spirit of the album and it bursts across the stage in a whirlwind of sound and fury.

First and foremost, John O’Hara’s orchestrations are stunning. Adapting the score for nine pieces (2 keys / 2 guitars / 2 strings / bass / drums / brass), the music gains a level of undercurrent for the motiv structure to shine through and guaranteeing that the music is appropriately loud. It’s also a tribute to Jason Barnes’s sound design that the cast are still able to be heard over the blaring band without ever getting painful to hear and without the muffled and echo-y tones of most tours (and touring venues).

Credit also goes to Frances Newman for her excited, visceral choreography and Carl Perry for the costumes so stylish as to remind us in one shot why the mods looked so damn cool: I left the theatre wanting one of Jimmy’s marked up parkas, even if the revivalist/torch carrying mods of here and now find the garment passé and stereotypical.

So where’s the big problem? Well, as I mentioned before, the story can be obtuse, and while the staging brings it to life as much as possible, it doesn’t always manage to make sense of itself on stage. One reason for this is the presence of a Young Jimmy representing the whole id, who struck me as somewhat superfluous. There’s also some time jumping in an attempt to clarify some lyrics in the face of onstage happenings which would be a spoiler to reveal here. Sophie Khan’s set doesn’t help much either: there’s a sofa for the first few scenes, a revolve, and a giant ring in the second act. The band are visible on a two tiered cage at the back for a couple of cast members to climb on, but otherwise the location prompts are determined by how much the viewer is paying attention to the lyrics. Clubs are easy, a solo moment on a pier not so much.

Another, more pressing issue, is in the portrayal of Jimmy’s personalities: all four are played by different actors in identical clothes. The technique is engaging and works as the situation shifts from Ryan O’Donnel’s romantic reaching out to others to George Maguire’s tough guy fighting with his father (John Schumacher), but it can be difficult to tell the four apart, especially when Maguire is physically very similar to ineffectual Jimmy Rob Kendrick and maintains similar body language. Jack Roth’s lunatic tends to slouch and keep a worrying grin, and Ryan O’Donnell keeps a saddened look most of the time though he too blends into the others at times. A second viewing made it easier to work out who was who at times, but the majority of visitors won’t make the effort.

Confusion aside, all four of the lads - three of whom have been with the production since workshop - are fierce to watch as are the rest of the cast including Kevin Wathen who stands out as The Godfather, singing most of the early Who numbers and Sydney Rae White as the abstract Girl.

At the end of the day, the weaknesses of the piece are, in their own way, amplifying its strengths. The abstract nature of the story and focus on internalised conflict make it a universal tale of putting behind childish things, not unlike Spring Awakening, but better. It’s like the class braniac gut punching the captain of the rugby team at graduation. And it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.

Where: Touring until 3 October. Check the show website for details.
When: Tu-Sa, Fr/Sa are two show days.
How Much: Varies by stop. Tickets were £7.50-£28 when I saw the show.
Concessions: Varies by stop. ATG theatres are doing twofers for members on some nights.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30. It’s worth every penny to hear the music performed live though some may find the story difficult to follow.
RZ Other Notes: This is not a traditional show for musical queens. One such person posted on a message board that she hated the show - it was too loud for her taste, and when asked what she was expecting confessed that she’d never listened to The Who before and didn’t care for serious rock in general. Her loss. While I doubt that Quadrophenia will convert fans of traditional MT fare to The Who, much as We Will Rock You is unlikely to convert haters to Queen, I can only hope that people do give it a try because it really is that brilliant.

I’m also sad that the tour has apparently been cut short - early press implied that the show would go until November, including stops in Milton Keynes and Wimbledon, which would have been incredibly convenient. Now I have to debate going down to Brighton (relevant but mostly sold out) or somewhere a good distance from London if I want to see it again before it ends - sales have varied location to location but are nowhere good enough to suggest that a West End transfer would be profitable.

Oh, and why the hell didn’t someone get the cast on T4 to promote this show? It’s still incredibly relevant 35 years after the album came out.


elizadoohicky said...

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your opinion. All I can say after seeing the production tonight in Leeds, is that I was completely mesmerised, thrilled, and totally LOVED it! For me, it brought the 'story' ALIVE. I have always loved the album and film, but seeing this theatrical expression amazed me. My emotions were captivated and engaged every second. Credit to all involved: brilliant. And of course, to The Who for superb music!! experience I'll never forget.