TOM: The Story of Tom Jones, The Musical, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

It’s not unusual for a pop act’s back catalogue to be plundered to create an biographical jukebox musical. The West End currently has three in play – Sunny AfternoonBeautiful and Jersey Boys (four if you also count Motown, five with the non-narrative Thriller Live). So Theatr Na Nóg’s idea of chronicling the life of Tom Jones, whose journey from the valleys to Vegas must surely be filled with enough incident, must have seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, maybe the lack of brains contributes to its failure.

Mike James’s script spends two hours getting Jones (then plain old Tommy Woodward) from his teenage life in Pontypridd to the point where his first hit, It’s Not Unusual, reaches number 1. Along the way his wife Linda – who Tom marries when both are 16, after she gets pregnant – remains alongside him, even as he moves to London to pursue a recording career while she stays in Wales, waiting by the phone box for his daily call.

And at its heart, the relationship between Kit Orton’s Tom and Elin Phillips as Linda woukd have a sweetness to it were it not encased in such dreary, clichéd, narration-heavy dialogue. Phylip Harries’ narrator is an engaging presence, but every time James’ script gives him pages more to say the whole show loses any pretence of having a pace to it, becoming more of a spoken word Wikipedia article occasionally punctuated by actors saying things that aren’t very interesting.

And nor, notably, is there much in the way of music. A few bursts of Orton’s Jones singing Al Jolson aside, it takes a full 25 minutes to get anything approaching a full performance. We hear of Jones’popular singing gigs through dialogue, rather than being shown it. As Tommy Woodward joins a local band to become Tommy Scott and the Senators, occasional glimpses of US-based rock and blues inspired covers begin to show the genesis of the musical style for which Tom Jones has become known, but it feels like such moments occur rarely and begrudgingly.

And that’s a real shame, because while Orton lacks a strong visual resemblance to Jones, he does accomplish a reasonable interpretation of the singer’s deep-throated vocal style, along with hip thrusts that are delivered with the enthusiasm, if not the charisma, of the original. But his performance is hamstrung by an enclosing script that is so concerned with accuracy that it forgets to be entertaining. Even an encounter with notorious record producer Joe Meek (a man chronicled far better in the play, and film, Telstar), which threatens to introduce a degree of much-needed entertainment, is immediately punctured by having Jones relate the event to his wife immediately afterwards.

After two hours of drudgery with occasional bursts of music, we finally get the performance of It’s Not Unusual to which the play has been building up. And it’s a cracking performance – even if narratively there is no attempt to explain why Jones is being backed on stage by the band which, in the narrative, he has just split from. And as an encore, Orton and the band rattle through a quick selection of Jones classics – The Green Green Grass of HomeDelilah and Sex Bomb. There is more life and vigour in these final ten minutes than in the preceding two acts.

It makes one wish for a version of Jones’s life that chronicles his later years too, and which is not afraid of mixing book and music. As it is, describing this show as a ‘musical’ is wide of the mark: it’s two hours of doggerel followed by a glimpse of a decent tribute act.

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