Some days, the internet can surprise you. Today, for example, it surprised me when I discovered that apart from the one that’s going to occur at the end of this sentence, there’s only one other reference on the entire web to Rentacassette. Back in the seventies, before local libraries started lending out music as well as books, Rentacassette was one of the few ways you could listen to records that you couldn’t cadge off your mates. It was a rental service that worked on a similar principle to the way Lovefilm or Netflix operate today: you paid a regular fee, and selected a wishlist from their catalogue of albums. They’d then post you random selections from your list as they became available, on a medium we used to call “cassette” (think of it as a big plastic MP3, kids).
I learned about Rentacassette from an ad in the back of a music paper – shit, that’s another concept I’ll have to explain to the under-20s – and spent a couple of happy teenage years getting to hear records I probably would have missed otherwise. And one of those was The Who’s Quadrophenia, an album for which I quickly developed a huge amount of affection. Which would make me the perfect demographic for the stage musical adaptation that’s currently touring the UK. The problem is, the album isn’t the main thing people remember Quadrophenia for.
Strictly speaking, there are two completely different Quadrophenias. (Quadropheniae?) The first one is that Who album from 1973, the one that everyone thinks of as their less famous rock opera. For my money, though, if you put Quadrophenia up against Tommy these days, it’s Quadrophenia that wins hands down (although at least one of Spank’s Pals disagrees violently with that assessment). Tommy’s trying a little too hard to be an actual opera, telling its story in a combination of conventional rock songs and disjointed fragments of music that never quite gel together.
Quadrophenia, on the other hand, isn’t so concerned with telling a story – at least, not in the music. It’s a fine collection of standalone songs, with a vague concept tying them all together: but there’s no sign of a narrative throughline in the lyrics, unlike Tommy. Quadrophenia wears its story, quite literally, on its sleeve: a Pete Townshend essay describing the torment of Jimmy the Mod, and a terrific photo-narrative that sets up the mood of the songs beautifully. But when you get down to it, there’s not all that much of a tale there: so you can see why the other Quadrophenia - the Franc Roddam film of 1979 - built an entirely new story around the basic idea of Jimmy travelling to Brighton in search of himself, ditching a large number of the album’s songs in favour of a nostalgic soundtrack of Sixties hits.
It’s probably fair to say that these days, the movie is what people remember when they think of Quadrophenia, rather than the album. Which makes the stage version a very interesting proposition… because it’s based on the album, not the film. The creative team of director Tom Critchley, writer Jeff Young and musical director John O’Hara have taken the brave step of going back to the source, and treating Quadrophenia as if it was a rock opera like Tommy. Which means no additional dialogue: they’re relying on the songs and the visuals to tell the story.
“Schizophrenic? I’m bleedin’ Quadrophenic” was the punchline of Townshend’s original short story – the one clue to the meaning of the title, an indication that the central character Jimmy had four sides to his personality, which could theoretically be mapped onto the four members of the Who themselves. The film never really explored that idea, but the stage adaptation makes a casting coup out of it: there are four actors playing Jimmy, representing the Romantic, the Lunatic, the Tough Guy and the Hypocrite. The opening number The Real Me sets this up terrifically, establishing the quick switches from one actor to the next that we’ll come to expect for the next two hours.
But if we’re honest about it, Jimmy’s only really got two and a half personalities worth mentioning. Jimmy The Romantic is the one who gets the lion’s share of the stage time: when we caught the show on a Saturday matinee in Brighton (oh yes), regular actor Ryan O’Donnell was off, and we had to make do with understudy Daniel Curtis. Except Curtis was more than just a substitute for another guy: he was bloody magnificent, tearing into his numbers with enough passion to almost make you forget that Roger Daltrey sang these songs once. Jack Roth is equally impressive as the Lunatic, bouncing around the stage with a ferocious energy that recalls… well, recalls his dad, to be honest, because he’s the spitting image of Tim Roth. (Particularly if you remind yourself what Roth Senior was like a quarter of a century ago.) Unfortunately, Tough Guy George Maguire and Hypocrite Rob Kendrick don’t get to distinguish themselves to anything like the same degree: one of them had a very nice voice, but I couldn’t tell you which one it was.
Musically, Quadrophenia really can’t be faulted: this is the only musical I can think of where the band takes a curtain call at the front of the stage at the end (just before the four leads), and they deserved it. The eight-piece ensemble isn’t the Who – they’d be foolish to try to be – but like the vocalists, they pour huge amounts of energy into playing these songs to make them work in a theatrical context. The one thing they can’t quite pull off is the final chord of Love Reign O’er Me, simply because they don’t have Keith Moon, or the four percussionists it would take to reproduce what he does single-handedly at the end of the record.
The rest of the cast are all pretty damn fine too, stealing a few sneaky visual cues from the movie. Ryan Gage in particular gives it his best Sting as Ace Face, while cleverly getting across that he’s not quite as cool as he (or everyone else) thinks he is. Sydney Rae White doesn’t get to do much as The Girl, other than a lovely bonus rendition of Love Reign O’er Me and a discreet-to-the-point-of-invisible homage to the movie’s back-alley knee-trembler. And in one of the bits that never made it into the film, Kevin Wathen has fun stomping around the stage as The Godfather, a pop star who turns out to be just one of the many idol figures who’ll let Jimmy down (a cute bit of self-criticism from Townshend, there).
But here’s the thing: anyone who’s unfamiliar with the album won’t have the faintest idea what this Eddie Izzardesque figure is doing on stage in a Union Jack fur coat singing old Who songs, because he wasn’t in the film narrative. It’s a no-win situation, unfortunately – the bits that stick to the album story don’t come across clearly in a visual context, while the additions made for the stage push it too far over the top into melodrama. And there’s a visible loss of nerve in the decision to shoehorn several older, more famous Who songs into the show (which, admittedly, the film did as well). The Belated Birthday Girl noted the amusing irony of the final encore being a rambunctious group rendition of My Generation, considering that Townshend’s conclusion at the end of Quadrophenia is that Jimmy needs to get old before he dies.
Quadrophenia’s been touring the UK for several months now – the official show forum is worth investigating for clues to the various changes that have been made to it along the way. The presumption is that it’s being honed in preparation for a West End run, but it strikes me as a potentially difficult show to sell. Its story is too obscure for a general audience, it’s structured all wrong for a musical (the second number is the overture, the penultimate number is a reprise of the overture), and it’s going to have to work very hard to overcome people’s memories of the much more straightforward pleasures of the film. But it’s built around a series of terrific performances of the songs, with a young cast giving it absolutely everything, and maybe that might just be enough. Certainly by the end of that Brighton matinee, the audience was moved to join in with a spontaneous chant of We Are The Mods. Ah, so this is where all the old Mods retired to...