While I enjoy The Beatles’ songs, I am not a diehard fan and nor have I seen Backbeat, the film. Fearing that this new musical was going to be a tribute band act, I wasn’t planning to see it. But, thanks to a friend’s suggestion, I watched last night’s performance which crushed my preconceived notions.
This musical has plenty for diehard fans to enjoy but it also has enough to engage others who simply want to enjoy good theatre. We meet John Lennon (Andrew Knott) persuading his artist friend, Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood), to play bass in his band. Soon this five piece band (Lennon, Sutcliffe, McCartney, Harrison and Pete Best who will be replaced by Ringo Star at the end) is in Hamburg, playing in seedy clubs and sleeping in conditions that wouldn’t pass today’s Health and Safety regulations. Stuart falls in love with a German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas) who tells him that he is more of an artist than a musician. Stuart chooses his art and love over the band and, while the band begins its journey that will soon make them successful and famous, Stuart dies of brain haemorrhage, aged 21.
The friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe provides the tenderness in this musical even if it isn’t easy to explain the nature of their friendship. Sutcliffe is not a good bass player and, unlike McCartney, doesn’t really show the hunger or inclination to take the band to the next level and yet Lennon insists on his friend being in the band. Hot tempered Lennon is domineering and, while he is not afraid to be strident towards anyone, he worships and even loves Sutcliffe. In this musical, we see both characters go on the rollercoaster of such deep friendships: from booze to blowjobs to emotional ups and downs. The scene where Lennon leaves Sutcliffe behind in Hamburg, as the band heads back to Liverpool, is especially moving.
As a theatrical piece, this musical employs various media – art, photography, music, film – to tell the story. In this respect, it’s almost film like and successful at it too. The imagery, music and dialogue that accompany Sutcliffe and Kirchher consummating their relationship create a smashing combination of German avant garde art and Liverpudlian grittiness.
The large cast gives a dynamic performance; there isn’t a single time in this musical when the pace or the energy slackens. This production demands a lot from its cast in being able to act, sing, play instruments and dance. Despite the large cast (including the other band members), the focus is on two characters – Lennon and Sutcliffe – and they are portrayed well. Nick Blood’s Sutcliffe is cool and sexy on stage but remains vulnerable to the end. Knott’s Lennon struts his stuff with a swagger and has some of the best laughs in the musical. In one scene, Lennon urges and helps McCartney to develop an early version of Love Me Do which is enough to sum up his influence on the band. Gedmintas gives us a convincing Astrid Kirchherr, tackling all the emotions needed to transform from a free spirited girl to one who loses her lover and everything in between. Her German accent, however, is not consistent.
If I have one criticism of this production, it’s the singalong session after the curtain call. The ending of the play is stirring and I would have preferred to have left the theatre, reflecting on the poignancy of this musical. Instead, we got the cast members belting out a number of Beatles’ tunes and the audience had to be on their feet, swaying and clapping, which all seemed a bit contrite. I note, however, that this is a personal dislike and accept that many in the audience last night looked like they were genuinely enjoying the singalong session.
Backbeat is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 24 March 2012. Performance time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with an interval. Click here for ticket information.