tom feature

Kit Orton in the early days of Tommy Woodward

IF enthusiasm alone sold shows Tom – The Musical would be the hottest ticket in any town it visited.

This is a labour of love, a Welsh show from a small Welsh community theatre company based on an industrial estate in Neath punching way above its weight, telling the story of a Welsh legend from the Valleys, Sir Tom Jones.

But this is not your usual jukebox musical packed with songs from a tribute act jammed into a wafer thin storyline about a wannabe star who makes it to the bigtime.

For a start the show has none of the songs that made Tom a household name - and kept the frilly knicker industry in business for years. Its only nod to his career as a global superstar comes at the end with Jones’s first hit It’s not unusual. That song was the end of the Tommy Woodward story, the story Theatr na nÓg wanted to tell, the story of the real Tom Jones battling to escape a life in the valleys among the pits.

True there is an encore of Jones’s hit, but that is an extra scene, like with a DVD, something to watch after the main feature has finished.

Kit Orton, who plays the Welsh star, is 32, an age he feels is right to play the young Tom Woodward as he was then. “Even though I am playing him when he was 22, he had such an interesting voice that I am only ready to play him now because his voice was just so mature for his age, I feel he was 10 years ahead.tom and linda

“And there is the drama of it as well because he had such a hard life, I don’t think any 22-year-old could convey what he went through from 16 to 24 . . . it was insane.”

It is a dream role for Newport-born Orton, who, in his time in the West End playing Sir Lancelot in Spamalot was a karaoke regular for a bit of fun, selecting Tom Jones classics with a particular favourite It’s not unusual so it was a well-honed performance when it came to auditions for the part of Tom.

Elin Phillips, who plays Linda, with Kit Orton as Tom

He is a big fan of Tom Jones and other powerful singers who know how to use their voice such as Freddie Mercury. “The first time I heard Tom Jones I didn’t know if I liked it or not, I just knew it was awesome.”

And he spent a lot of time imitating him, and other singers he liked and sang along to and after opera training found even more in the Jones’ voice.

But it is not just the singing which appealed. He said: “I see it as a play with music rather than a musical because if you say musical there are connotations that it will be a jukebox musical or songs will be shoehorned in and won’t make sense to the drama, whereas what we have is a good script, a true story about his early life that no one really knows about.

“There is an interesting story of him striving and struggling in the valleys and trying to break out of that life that everyone was forced into, forced to work from a young age, to slog their guts out. It is a good enough story in its own right to have it as a play and leave the music out and it would work just as well.

“The music is not shoehorned in and you are seeing him at his most vulnerable when it is just him and a piano in a room in working men’s club, trying to sing over people drinking. Its him before he became Tom Jones.”

Orton might be a West End star but he is not well known outside the capital’s theatreland, not a household name, and many a producer would have wanted a TV celebrity in the title role, a soap or reality TV star to put bums on seats, but that would have lost the whole point of Tom, the son of a miner from Treforest, Pontypridd. A rags to riches story that doesn’t need to distraction of a celebrity playing a nobody.

And sticking to her guns on that is Theatr na nÓg artistic director Geinor Styles, director of the show who has nurtured it from its inception.

The appeal to her was that the script told a real story. She said: “I love the music anyway, I love rock’n’roll, but it’s about the drive to succeed, a lot of the work we do is about people in extraordinary situations, ploughing on against all the odds, that’s a big thing for us as a company.

“Growing up in the valleys you know about Tom Jones and you know he is in America and he is a big singer, but that’s about it really.

“I didn’t know the back story, I didn’t know the struggles he’s had, I just knew he was out in LA and making a fortune. It’s about that. He doesn’t just appear; he’s done a lot of digging. He never sound checks, he just turns up, belts it out and he goes home, he’s that accomplished, and that takes graft and I am a great believer in grafting. It’s not going to be handed to you on a plate, ever.

“In the play we go from Tommy Woodward, his birth name, then he becomes Tommy Scott and the Senators and then Gordon Mills takes him and he evolves, he morphs into this icon. We finish when It’s Not Unusual gets to Number 1.”

She thinks audiences are sophisticated enough to want what she sees as a great story, with great characters and a love story all rolled into one and although, like Orton, she thinks the story could stand on its own as a play she added: “But that would be like Tom Jones losing his voice.”

And his story has been given its voice by tiny Theatr na nÓg, a theatre company few have heard of and even less can pronounce but like Tom, has made it to the big time through graft.

Tom, the musical, the story of Tom Jones, runs at the New Alexandra Theatre from 1- June.

Roger Clarke

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