Backbeat – a musical about the Beatles (based on the 1994 film)!
This announcement might not have sparked enthusiasm in all musical theatre fans. The heated discussion regarding ‘new writing’ versus ‘jukebox musicals’ is ongoing and with many great West End musicals closing early due to a lack of ‘bums on seats’, not everyone is willing to welcome all new musicals with open arms.
Personally, I am always open-minded. If a production is good and makes audiences happy, it should be in the West End. End of. There is room for different types of MT. And there should always be respect for the cast and creatives who work their socks off!
Back to Backbeat! So these were my thoughts when I took my seat at the Duke of York’s Theatre last Wednesday night. I’ve always liked the Beatles so nothing to lose especially as I had actually read some very positive comments about Backbeat. I also didn’t know much about the ‘early Beatles’ and was looking forward to finding out more about them.
Before I continue let me emphasise one thing from the start:
Backbeat, written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys and directed by David Leveaux, is not a jukebox musical at all. It’s the story of a special friendship between a smart and talented guy called John Lennon – who happened to become one of the most famous names in music history – and fellow art student Stuart Sutcliffe, who joined John’s skiffle band “The Quarrymen” as the bass player in the early 1960s although he couldn’t play at all. John thought he had the looks – and convinced him that playing a chord or two wouldn’t be that hard!
Then there’s Paul McCartney, of course; George Harrison playing lead guitar and, on drums, Pete Best. The band – now ‘The Beatles’ thanks to a suggestion from Stuart – spend about a month at the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany playing rock ‘n’ roll cover songs in small clubs for hours each day and sleeping behind a cinema screen. Stuart falls in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr which causes tensions between him and the band and John in particular. When the band are deported back to England due to George being underage, “Stu” is heart-broken.
When the Beatles finally return to Germany to play in bigger clubs, slowly becoming a hit with the fans and landing a record deal (and replacing Pete Best with Ringo Starr), Stuart gives up on his pop career – he has always thought of himself as an artist rather than a musician anyway – manages to get into art school and proposes to Astrid. Soon after, he tragically dies from a brain haemorrhage in Astrid’s arms.
So as good as story as any about friendship, love, jealousy plus sex, drugs, music and death – with the added bonus of it revolving around the most popular and iconic pop band of the 20th century. And a big finale that has the whole audience on its feet (and leaves everyone wanting more!).
Backbeat reminded me a bit of Jersey Boys in that it tells the story of a band. But it is not focused on popular songs the audience can sing along to – it is all about the story, the relationships between the characters. The music – mostly rock ‘n’ roll cover songs as that is what the early Beatles liked to perform – is there simply because it’s part of the story.
The cast consists of a bunch of very talented young actors. Nick Blood portrays Stuart Sutcliffe as a handsome and very cool lad (hardly ever seen without his shades) who has a very sensitive side. He is loyal to his friends and the band but his love for Astrid and art finally make him leave the band despite its imminent success and rise to fame – and despite Lennon’s attempts to make his best mate stay. There are some very touching scenes played by Blood and Ruta Gedmintas with depth and heart.
Beautiful Ruta Gedmintas shows us a cool and, at times, distant Astrid Kirchherr who is an artist herself. She takes photographs of the band and falls in love with Stuart’s artistic side. Their relationship drives a wedge between John and Stuart.
Andrew Knott’s performance as a tough, witty, aggressive but also vulnerable and loving John Lennon is outstanding. Whatever you might have pictured John Lennon to be like, Knott has captured it in his fabulous performance.
Daniel Healy as a right-handed Paul McCartney doesn’t play as much of a role in Backbeat as the complicated ‘love triangle’ that is John, Stuart and Astrid. However, when Daniel is on stage he IS Paul, especially as far as facial expressions, voice, movements and style are concerned. Paul is jealous of the attention John pays to Stuart who, in Paul’s opinion, is not even a real musician. John and Paul really are good friends though. One memorable scene shows Paul and John working on their first hit single together: Love Me Do. It’s all about John’s unique – and at times hurtful – humour but also the lads’ friendship and respect for each other.
Great performances are also delivered by the other two Beatles, Will Payne (George Harrison) and Oliver Bennett (Pete Best) and the ever-present ensemble. Something else that is always there is cigarette smoke – all of the Beatles are constantly lighting fags – apparently part of their ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ image. The Beatles actors are also great musicians – under the direction of guitarist and producer Paul Stacey, all of them sing and play their instruments very well which makes the acting even more believable.
There’s only one thing I feel needs improving and that’s the German accents. Most of the musical is set in Germany after all. While I’m aware that not many audience members will have felt the way I did, if you do speak the language well, the German accent from most of the ‘German’ characters lacks linguistic authenticity.
Personally, when I go and see a play or musical, I’d like to be taken on a journey away from my own reality – and these less than convincing accents constantly spoilt it for me. It was more like a parody reminiscent of TV programmes such as ‘Allo ‘Allo. If it was my production, I’d want it to be authentic in every aspect and would probably even consider German actors. But at least basic words such as ‘thank you’ (‘danke’) should be pronounced correctly. On a positive note, the Scouse accents were very convincing.
The set is fairly simple – in tune with the Beatles’ less than luxurious lodgings in Hamburg. However, Christopher Oram’s design is beautiful with projections of Stuart’s artwork and Astrid’s original monochrome photos she took of the band.
As expected, the story can’t end on a high – Stuart sadly dies and an emotional and very well-acted scene between a grieving Astrid and a tough John – who eventually does break down and reveals the depth of his love for Stuart – is very moving. However – Stuart Sutcliffe’s legacy lives on, with the band adopting the new hairstyle Astrid gave Stuart and also the collarless suits that were a gift from Astrid and that were to become the look of the early Beatles.
In some reviews I’ve read, critics say this is when Backbeat should end and with the fun finale, producers have unnecessarily given in to the audiences’ need for a crowd-pleasing jukebox musical type ending. I disagree – while of course it does make people leave the theatre with a smile on their face (what’s wrong with that?), the Fab Four we see in the finale (plus Stuart himself), singing some of their first hit records ( Please Please me, Please Mr Postman and Love Me Do) were shaped by their time with Stuart and in my opinion, it is a very fitting way to pay tribute to him.
Backbeat is a new musical that I can recommend to anyone who is remotely interested in the story of the Beatles – or indeed anyone who is interested in a good story (based on real events), great acting and live music that supports the plot.
I strongly believe that Backbeat should have a place in the West End long-term, way beyond its scheduled run – after all, the Beatles are an essential part of our English cultural heritage.
Review by Sandra Palme (Twitter: @LondonTheatre2)
Content updated 1st May 2014