When a new production of iconic rock opera Tommy comes on tour to the Crucible next week it will be turning the clock back for Peter Straker.
He was part of the original West End production in 1979 and also that year made his only previous appearance at the Sheffield theatre in another musical, The Wiz.
The Who’s Tommy tells the story of a boy who witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of his mother’s lover and is so traumatised he chooses to stop communicating with the outside world. Growing up in post-war Britain he suffers abuse from relatives and others in the wider community but on reaching adolescence, Tommy’s life begins to change when he finds salvation in playing pinball.
For this Ramps on the Moon production performed by an ensemble cast of disabled and non-disabled actors, Tommy’s creator Pete Townshend has written two new songs.
Peter Straker, who is playing the Acid Queen, opens the show with a new version of Amazing Journey, returning in Act Two with a new torch song, adding to an already epic score including Tommy Can You Hear Me, I’m Free, See Me, Feel Me and Pinball Wizard.
Previously the Acid Queen has been played by a woman, most famously Tina Turner in the movie, and it was director Kerry Michael who thought of changing gender for this production, according to Straker.
He’s not a very nice character and exploring that side has been fabulous
“It seemed a good idea and I spoke to Pete Townshend about it. Originally we thought about making the Acid Queen a man but it never happened. It’s great fun to do and I hope it’s not going to be seen as just a drag act but more a man who likes to dress as a woman.
“It’s spooky in a way,” he continues. “He is someone who believes he can heal people. He’s a bit like a shamen who is also a whore and does things for money and is a fixer. He’s not a very nice character and exploring that side is fabulous.
“I am in high heels and a frock which is not something I normally do. The only time I have done that before was in a show called High Heels Parrotfish at Theatre Royal Stratford East and I did an episode of Casualty in which I played a drag artist.”
He is part of an ensemble of 14 performers and musicians which includes Garry Robson who performs in a wheelchair and deaf actors Donna Mullings and William Grint who plays the title role.
Ramps On The Moon is a project created by seven regional arts organisations including Sheffield Theatres, to help effect a change in disability arts provision.
“Working with this company is like the United Nations doing a show,” observes Straker. “Having a deaf actor as Tommy gives it authenticity and means we have to listen in a different way. It’s very humbling and a great privilege to be part of this.”
Straker started his career in the original London production of Hair and is looking forward to marking its 50th anniversary next year.
Later he took on the role of the Narrator in Tommy in 1979, the year he also appeared at the Crucible in The Wiz. “I made a spectacular entrance hoisted in a forklift truck,” he recalls
He notably worked with Freddie Mercury on two solo albums and more recently, his solo show Peter Straker Sings Brel played the Famous Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“It’s interesting to re-visit Tommy in this time when there is so much political correctness. It’s very raw and yet abuse still happens,” he concludes.
Tommy is at the Crucible from Thursday, June 22, to Saturday, July 1.