Wednesday, 12 December 2018

From Private Jet to Pinball Wizard

LANDING the leading part in rock opera Tommy seems to have been a lucky talisman for Ben Smith.

LANDING the leading part in rock opera Tommy seems to have been a lucky talisman for Ben Smith.

The 22-year-old last played with HAODS seven years ago, when he took the part of Marius in a production of Les Misérables. After that, he took a rest from the boards and has been gigging professionally with his Reading-based rock band Private Jet, both locally and in London pubs and clubs.

But since he started rehearsals at the Kenton he has rediscovered his love of theatre, and following a number of West End auditions he has been given a part in a new rock musical touring the country later this year. Although he can’t disclose any more information about it just yet, he is understandably very excited about it. He is also excited about playing Tommy.

“It’s eight years since I’ve done a show at the Kenton,” he says. “I grew up with Starmaker Theatre company, I was with them until I was 18, then I went off into the big wide world.

“I’ve always loved The Who, and having grown up doing musical theatre, it’s a nice mixture of the two.

“I played Tommy before when I was 16 in a production at the Wilde Theatre in South Hill Park. I love the part because you get to play three characters.

“Tommy is the narrator at the beginning, then you get to the vulnerable person who has been subjected to a terrific trauma — he can’t see or hear or speak. Then he changes into someone who has all these followers, so he has come from nothing to being worshipped.

“On top of that, the songs are great.”

The rock opera broke the mould of musical theatre when it first came out in 1992. Written by Pete Townshend of The Who and American theatre director Des McAnuff, it is based on the music of the 1969 double rock album of the same name.

Tommy tells the story of a young boy who witnesses his father killing his mother’s lover. The trauma causes him to lapse into a strange state — he cannot see, hear or speak — and he becomes the victim of bullies and child abuse by his uncle. But as a teenager, when his peers discover he is a whizz-kid on the pinball machine, he becomes a teenage hero overnight.

The show covers a number of issues that are not for the faint-hearted, although Smith admits that the most gruelling scene, where Tommy is subjected to abuse by his uncle, has been cut from the HAODS version. However, he says: “There’s a lot of other risqué things in the show, lots of sexual stuff and references to drugs for example. But it’s how you interpret it really, and this show is not promoting those kinds of things, it’s getting these issues out into the open.”

He says the show will appeal to the baby boomers who grew up with The Who, but also to younger people who love the music of bands from the Sixties.

“I’m a 22-year-old who collects vinyl,” he says. “I’ve always been a fan of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It’s what people of my generation grew up listening to because our parents were always playing their records. A lot of people my age love those bands. They are just as popular as ever.”

The HAODS show features a live rock band on stage and promises to be quite “spectacular” in the lighting and sound departments — Smith brought in a friend as sound engineer — Oliver Heyward, son of Nick Heyward of the Eighties band Haircut 100.

“I think the whole technical side of this show is going to be very important,” he says. “Ollie is a fantastic sound engineer and works from his home studio in Henley. This show has a lot of things going on on stage that are a bit surreal, all linked in with the psychedelia of the era. It should be a really good show.

“What I like about it is there’s definitely something serious about the show. It explores issues, and that makes it much more interesting. It’s nice to have a musical that has a lot of substance.

“Sometimes the music is fantastic but the story line leaves a bit to be desired. This is quite a cool story. I think Pete Townshend was making a bit of a statement about lots of things — the way children are treated, and about drug culture, and different types of sexuality. He also makes a statement about the way we hero-worship people, when in fact the object of worship very often just wants to be normal like everyone else.”

lHAODS’ Tommy runs at the Kenton Wednesday to Saturday, April 17 to 20. Box office: (01491) 575698 or

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