I have been waiting all year for “Tom the Musical” to come to The Festival Theatre and was really hoping that this show would not disappoint me, and it didn’t. This is a bit of an odd show for me to review as, unlike many people who will be in the audience, I am not a big Tom Jones fan (I don’t dislike his work either), but I do recognise and respect the Tom Jones story as one of the great rags to riches stories in British music and also the undeniable quality and power of that voice. Tom Jones to me is just simply one of the greatest singers Britain has produced in the post war years and one of the best R&B/Gospel singers out there too (even though he recorded much of his material in a far different style).
This show gives us the story in narrated format looking at first back as we start with a scene at pretty much any working men’s club in Tom’s home town of Pontypridd where, as we are told, everyone there will claim to know Tom Jones, and many will remember him as Thomas Woodward and his later stage name Tom Scott.
The setting is this very working class Welsh Town where Tom’s father was a miner (along with many others) and we move quickly into our story and meet Tom at 15 years old, and he has already been singing for most of his life, and has this burning desire to want to make something of himself with his voice. Tom is played by Kit Orton throughout the show. We also meet Tom’s 15 year old and pregnant girlfriend Linda (played by Elin Phillips) right at the beginning of this story and follow the story from two young teenagers married at 16 , who with a young baby are living with Linda’s parents while Tom tries to hold down a job and also make a little extra money singing in the small pubs and clubs of the area.
A chance opening sees Tom reluctantly give up singing solo and filling in on vocals for some friends in a band called The Senators (later The Squires) and soon he is out with them permanently on vocals singing rock n roll, R & B standards and any other type of song that an audience will listen to, and although not making a fortune, they are making a small living on top of their day jobs.
Events lead the band to an early meeting and recording deal with brilliant but eccentric record producer Joe Meek as they cut the single “Chills and Fever”. The single is not a hit and events in the recording studio get chaotic too. Joe Meek later sold the original tapes of this session to EMI and two singles on Columbia records and an EP were released from it in 1965 when Tom Jones hit the big time.
One thing leads to another and the band come to the attention of London based manager and song writer Gordon Mills (Richard Corgan) and taking a huge risk the band move to London, but success is far from overnight and like all good stories, Tom is just about to pack everything in and stakes everything on one last shot at recording himself the single he had sung on as a Demo for a song originally written with Sandie Shaw in Mind – “It’s Not Unusual”. Tom finally has the hit song he wanted, but his band are not on this one, and it is the end for them together.
A long introduction I know, but really needed as this story really does cover the early years of struggle up to the initial success and getting there does take a lot of time up. Kit Orton is vocally impressive as he runs through the early cover songs that the band plays and the band themselves are very good, but the problem always with a show like this is how to tell the story without falling into that nostalgia show or tribute band trap, and if this was just a musical then this is probably what would have happened. This is also though a great story and stripping any of the songs out you would still have a great dramatic story. I think some people would agree with me that Kit and the band are far stronger on the vocals and musician side than the dramatic side. The dramatic role here is really left to Elin Phillips as Linda and she is very good in this part. Elin as Linda is the central figure really which this story revolves around, because it was her character Linda in real life that believed in Tom reaching his dreams so much and was prepared to sacrifice so much to give him every chance to reach for his dreams and also struggle on almost no money bringing up their small boy while Tom was away in London. Without Linda I don’t think there would ever have been a “Tom Jones Story”.
Kit Orton has the powerful voice needed to play Tom Jones here and there are some great standards here including “Spanish Harlem”, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” and one of my all time favourites “Land of a Thousand dances”. Also there is a great version of “That Lucky Old Sun” which we get both as a Gospel version and later as a nice Welsh Voice choir arrangement.
We do get a bit of a Karaoke run through at the end of some of Tom’s early hits including of course that wonderful country music classic “Green, Green Grass of Home” – listen to the lyrics folks, it is far from a happy song, and “Delilah” which I have to admit I forever associate with the later Alex Harvey version.
My only little issues are that, for me, the show sometimes is not sure exactly what audience it is aiming for – true Tom Jones fans or a general theatre audience. The story of the struggles to that first hit single is covered in detail and that does take up a lot of the stage time (perhaps a little too much) and it does slow the narrative pace down a little. The story also for me ends a little too early in the remarkable story of the life of Tom Jones. We take so long to get to the “success” part that there is honestly not much time left, but I was sort of left feeling –“where’s the rest of the story” as I would have liked to see some of the later parts such as the famous Tom Jones television show and huge Las Vegas success years. This story gave us no real clue of what a huge international star Tom Jones became (particularly in the USA), and the only nod to later in life success with bands like The Art of Noise is a rendition of “Sex Bomb”.
I hope this show does well as it has all the ingredients to do so – a talented cast, good sets, great songs and more important than anything a real rags to riches story that against all the odds came true.
Review by Tom King