Last night I saw the stage adaption of The Who’s Quadrophenia by Jeff Young, John O’Hara and Tom Critchley, at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. The venue was well filled though not quite sold out, a good effort considering that it is on for several days.
Quadrophenia is one of my favourite albums, though I don’t know how much this is because of inherent artistic quality, and how much because it resonated with me when it first appeared 36 years ago. It is not really about multiple personalities, more about the multiple roles that all of us play, such as child, worker, lover, rebel, and the conflicting feelings that can engender. It is about dysfunctional families, drugs, sex, gangs, and the stress of trying to conform to conflicting norms, such as dutiful worker vs rebellious youth culture. It is quasi-religious, with the rain and the sea representing some higher power.
The show was disappointing. Why? Well, the first problem is the stage layout. The musicians are at the back of the stage, on an extraordinary two-storey platform, and it’s pretty hard to see what they are doing since during most of the show the lights are elsewhere. During the second half of the performance, it is even harder to see the band because of a big circle thing that appears in front. I suppose this was somewhat like having the orchestra in a pit at a classical opera; but I didn’t like it. A rock concert is about the dynamics between the band and the audience, and if you put all these barriers in the way, it makes it hard for the music to live.
The main part of the stage was where the action took place. Jimmy, the lead character in Quadrophenia, is played by four actors, the idea being that each one represents a different face of his internal personas. In an early scene we see Jimmy seated on a sofa between his parents; just as he gets comfortable, an alter ego Jimmy comes and turfs him out of his place, only to be displace in turn shortly after. I thought that was effective; but in general having four actors did not work well. The first problem was that they were not sufficiently distinct; frankly, I couldn’t tell you what kinds of characteristics each of the four was meant to represent. Second, the artifice of having four Jimmys on stage together when in a sense there was only one of them was largely unsuccessful. I would rather have had them mostly on stage one at a time.
There was no speech, just the music and singing Who songs. Not all the songs were from Quadrophenia – we also got some other early Who numbers like My Generation. However, the singers also did a poor job of engaging with the audience – in fact, at some points I wasn’t sure if they were singing or miming to a recording. There was a lot of jumping around and climbing up the big circular thing, which rotated.
The show is lacking in contrasts. Quadrophenia is a album of transitions: the claustrophobia of a small terraced house where Jimmy lives with his mum and dad; the scooter as the vehicle to the freedom of the open road; the “5.15” train which takes Jimmy to Brighton, place of conflict and redemption, and to the sea. The show does a poor job of representing these contrasting places and colours; each scene feels the same as the one before it.
The singers were competent but not strong enough for what they took on. Roger Daltrey is a hard act to follow, for sure. At times during choral sections Quadrophenia reminded me of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, a jolly musical originally intended for schools; I do not think Quadrophenia should ever sound like that.
My advice for the next tour: bring the band into view; lose half the actors; have one Jimmy at a time; sing at the audience not at one another, and sing your heart out. Quadrophenia deserves it.
PS for some alternate views see the official forum; lots of praise on there. At Nottingham the audience reaction was mixed; strong applause at the end, yet the seats in front of us were filled for the first half and empty for the second.