About Tommy @ Southwark Playhouse, London

cast list
Gwilym Lee, Beatrice Curnew, Hywel Morgan

directed by
Elly Green

About Tommy follows a small band of national servicemen as they leave to join the UN peacekeeping force in Croatia. The blue beret offers our excitable conscripts a chance to redeem humanity. However, what awaits them seems far from what was expected.

The late Jean Baudrillard’s famous argument that the first gulf war didn’t really happen, that it was an empty spectacle resonates strongly throughout Thor Bjørn Krebs’ play.

Elly Green’s realization of the work, which can be read as an attempt to make palpable the separation between reality and its portrayal, makes extensive use of video screens, cameras and projectors. As fitting as this seems, it carries certain risks.
Philosophically, About Tommy is as rooted in its epoch as the attendant lightshow. This is on many levels a slither of history. Fortunately, this production dodges accusations of formulism by exploring the possibilities of its central conceit thoroughly.

The play is superabundantly visual. We are bathed in light. The text too is stuffed with references to spectatorship, but we quickly understand that there is nothing to see here. The rot of war is but a spectre in our peripheral vision, always just off-stage, just out of sight.

We’re not the only ones gawping. Friends and family nurture their own understanding of their loved one’s plight; the soldiers themselves are only permitted to keep watch they cannot intervene.

Tommy delivers his panicked soliloquies to a camera. Projected and amplified, his face is poured over every available surface and his voice booms but for all the terrible excess of his words, these can only do what words do, perhaps ironically more so. Words generalize, they dull the sharp edges; as public as Tommy’s confessions are, his experiences are impenetrable and private.

The three-strong cast is able and enthusiastic but spread thinly. Whilst About Tommy derives a good deal of its comic effect from the rapid changes of role this necessitates, there were times when the players seemed unsure of themselves and of each other particularly towards the end.

This short play is perhaps even a touch overlong. Nonetheless, what these tableaux lose in unity they more than recoup in fluidity and energy. They are wonderful to look at, if unyielding.

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