Review: 'Tom The Musical' – A Heartfelt Jukebox Tale

Ben Huxley

  • United Kingdom Critic

Last week it was announced that Tom The Musical – A Story of Tom Jones is nominated in three categories at the Broadwayworld UK Theatre Awards. It’s running for Best New Musical, Best Regional Production, and the lead, Kit Orton, is up for best actor. It has some strong competition too: Aladdin, Kinky Boots, Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day and a good few more. I saw the production earlier this year when it came to North Wales, and hearing this news brought it all back. 

In her review of the Johnny Cash biography, Walk the Line, Zadie Smith said that musical biopics are “the struggle towards self-actualization. With songs. They are as predictable and joyful as bible stories… Music Saves.” This was exactly the case with Tom, which began its run at Venue Cymru on May 10th. Young Tom Jones was a working-class boy, brought up in a Welsh miming town. The show centred on the figurative rags he donned, before the literal riches came along with the release of It’s Not Unusual in 1965. Tom could barely afford to call his wife from a payphone in London; he couldn’t provide for the family; the “is it worth it?” question frequently came up; he drank and he fought. But the music conquered all in the end, as we knew it would. And of course well known songs guided us through the narrative. The musical biopic clichés Smith mentioned were all there, but its slickness saved it from banality. 

The set was almost perfect – not quite there because it occasionally wobbled to resemble Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques. But this was only a minor fault in what was obviously a hugely ambitious visual project. The first thing we saw after curtain-up was an image of a mining shaft and headframe, made grimmer by grey lighting. Backgrounds were projected onto a screen; it’s hard to tell whether this was a lazy or inventive decision, but luckily it worked. Different houses had different wallpapers: Tom’s London flat had the art nouveau feel that you’d expect from the capital in the 60s, whereas his Pontyprydd home’s wallpaper was more plain and cheerful. Images of London streets were also projected, juxtaposed with the terrace houses of the Welsh town. The clashing of two cultures is a central theme of the story – American-influenced rock and roll alongside working men’s clubs in South Wales – and the backgrounds did a great job of representing this. 

Kit Orton, in the title role, didn’t try to emulate Tom Jones’ voice – which was a good idea because there are few who can. He had a fantastic voice anyway, and his different style reminded us that we weren’t at a Tom Jones tribute concert. As far as individual performances go, there wasn’t a weak link. Elin Phillips especially deserves a mention as the late Melinda Woodward, who shone all the way through before taking to the keys for the encore. The show-stealer, however, was the live band – or “The Senators”, as they were called. The actors played Tom’s bandmates, as well as doubling up as the band for the show. Kieran Bailey created a tense drum-beat during a fight scene, and the band briefly became The Kinks during recreation of the 60s TV show The Beat Room. Their performance made the real-life fact that Tom Jones only achieved fame as a solo artist all the more sad. 

This being said - one can never be sure how factually accurate biographical works are. Inaccuracies are added for dramatic effect and the “boring” bits aren’t even considered – we all know this. The show’s subtitle, A Story of Tom Jones, suggests that it’s highly fictionalised – “the story” would lead us to believe that we’re seeing facts. A story, well… it’s just a story. A song title might have been better – it is quite common, what with Mama Mia and Walk the Line.

Surely Sex Bomb would’ve put more bums on seats. Though, on second thought, it may have been a bit misleading. 

Even if it doesn’t win the awards, it’s nice to see it receiving some recognition through the nominations. If it ever tours again, I would recommend checking it out – especially if you’re a Tom Jones superfan. But in that case you’ve probably already seen it, and certainly don’t need any persuasion from me to go again.