JOYCE MCMILLAN on TOM, A STORY OF TOM JONES – THE MUSICAL at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 19.3.16
3 stars ***
IT WAS THE AGE of The Beatles, of mop-top groups and new-born guitar pop, when London agents and bookers just weren’t interested unless you came from Merseyside, home of the beat. Yet somehow, during those same Sixties years, a singer emerged who seemed like a throwback to the 1950’s, a big balladeer who looked like an adult rather than a teenager, who moved like Elvis, and who sang everything from Ray Charles to Irving Berlin classics.
His name was Tom Jones, born Tommy Woodward in Pontypridd in 1940; and he proved to have such a voice, and such showbiz staying-power, that if you search the internet today for Theatre na nOg of Neath’s touring tribute musical about Tom’s early days – written by Mike James, directed by Geinor Styles, and first seen in Wales in 2014 – you’ll find just as many references to the big man’s current tour of Australia and New Zealand.
In a series of scenes so tightly focussed on those early years that they become slightly repetitive, the show therefore begins with a classic mining valley vista of tiny terraced houses, before leading us – via asides to the audience and lightly caricatured short scenes – through Tom’s youth as a Saturday-night pub singer, and his successful local career with a band called The Senators, to swinging London, and the year of grinding failure the band endured there before Tom,and Tom alone, finally reached the Number One slot with It’s Not Unusual, in March 1965.
And give or take a rousing final medley of Tom’s greatest hits, that’s it, for this show; Kit Orton, in the leading role, makes a fine job of capturing Tom’s voice and presence, Elin Phillips gives a star turn as his ever-supportive teenage bride Linda, and the four actor-musicians who make up The Senators play brilliantly, particularly in the rock-and-roll sequences of the first half.
And although this show inevitably attracts an audience who were there when all this happened, 50 years ago, it’s fundamentally a story about youth, in a time when being young was far tougher and more thrilling than it is now; a time when it took oceans of self-belief for a working-class kid to break through into any kind of media at all, but when the rewards of fame, when it finally arrived, were more far-reaching and spectacular than anyone can easily imagine, in these days of diffuse online communities pursuing their own musical enthusiasms, and rarely – if ever – coming together at all.
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.