by Lynn on August 1, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Adapted for the stage by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys. Based on the Universal Pictures film. Directed by David Leveaux. Designed by Andrew D. Edwards from an original concept by Christopher Oram. Lighting by Howard Harrison and David Holmes. Sound by Richard Brooker. Projection designed by Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn for Knifedge. Starring: Oliver Bennett, Nick Blood, Isabella Calthorpe, Daniel Healy, Andrew Knott, and Daniel Westwick.

Definition: ‘Backbeat’: “A loud rhythmic beat occurring on the off beats of a bar of music, used especially in rock.”

BACKBEAT is also the name of the musical billed as “the birth of the Beatles” now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until September 2. It’s story of the Beatles from 1960-62 when they were young students in their native Liverpool; the mover and shaker of the group was John Lennon; and there were five in the band: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and bass guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe was a schoolmate of Lennon in art college. When John got the band a gig in Hamburg he insisted that Sutcliffe go with them, even though he didn’t know how to play the guitar. Lennon ‘teaching’ Sutcliffe how to play is one of the more amusing aspects of the show. The Hamburg gig was gruelling—six hours a day, seven days a week and was really a basement club fronting a brothel.

The group played mainly covers but also began writing their own songs to fill up the six hour sets. The band was introduced to pills to keep them going. They were also introduced to Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer who was really attracted to Sutcliffe and he to her. She is credited with creating their hair cuts and their signature jackets. Sutcliffe leaves the band in Hamburg to live with Astrid and to continue studying painting. There are other changes to the band. And they are discovered by Brian Epstein their first manager who gets them on their way.

The dynamic between Lennon and Sutcliffe and later Kirchherr is very strong. Lennon’s insistence that Sutcliffe join the band and therefore go with them to Hamburg even though he didn’t play, is puzzling. Was there an emotional ‘sexual’ bond between Lennon and Sutcliffe with Kirchherr in the way? Hard to tell. Lennon was definitively drawn to Sutcliffe. The adaptation by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys is not strong in filling in the gaps in the story and there are many.

I can appreciate the creators took liberties with the order of facts for dramatic effect. But it gets frustrating when they don’t actually give the information we need to know in the script. Putting in a chronology of events in the program is cheating. Lennon was desperate for the band to make it. Why would he jeopardize that by having a man in the group who couldn’t play? The show doesn’t answer that question and the answer isn’t obvious.

Sutcliffe had a distinctive stance and look when he played. How did that come about? We’re never told. We are keenly aware of Paul McCartney’s tight kneed stance and head shake; Lennon’s bobbing up and down when he played. But Sutcliffe is the mystery character of the band and we need to know how he came to his choices.

Some discoveries come from such simple places; for example McCarney is struggling with a new song that turns out to be “Love Me Do.” Lennon makes a few spur of the moment suggestions that solves the problem and produces one of the many “aha” moments. Astrid took photos of Lennon, McCartney and Sutcliffe at a deserted factory. The actual photos of the actual players are projected on a back wall of the theatre and when we realize we are looking at a very young John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it’s quite moving.

It’s a tricky situation in the theatre when the show is about a rock group. Rock clubs are expected to be ear splittingly loud. How does one gage the loudness of the music for the theatre, which is a different sensibility? The Beatles had a distinctive Liverpudlian accent. They talked fast. Do the creative powers that be for BACKBEAT ease up on the accent to accommodate an audience that might not understand it that easily? Do they slow down the speech so the audience keeps up? Or do they expect the audience to listen hard and stay with them?

In London where I first saw this show last January, the accents were problematic, especially of John Lennon, as played by the spunky, in-your-face Andrew Knott. Now the accents seem manageable. Perhaps Andrew Knott has loosened the accent, unless it’s just me listening harder and being used to it.

The sound is a problem. The sound is so amplified it often distorts what is being said or sung. Lots of dialogue is lost. Much of the Hamburg club scenes with the various German accents are a muddle and overplayed. And the music is so loud that with every bass note it seems to bang my insides.

As Stuart Sutcliffe, Nick Blood is brooding, charismatic, and quite compelling. As Paul McCartney, Daniel Healy has the boyish looks reminiscent of the young McCartney and in his quiet but firm way fought for his place in the band when Sutcliffe left. As Lennon, Andrew Knott is wonderfully brash and cocky.

For someone as important to the Beatles as Astrid Kirchherr was, Isabella Calthorpe who plays her is surprisingly stilted and wooden—not believable at all.

Director David Leveaux does have a fluid way of changing scenes, establishing the various relationships, and keeping up a frenzied pace. I just wish there was a better script to tell the story they obviously thought was important to tell and that the sound was manageable to actually hear what they wanted us to hear.

Backbeat plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until September 2.

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1 Backbeatfan August 1, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Paul McCartney is actually played by Daniel Healy, Daniel Westwick plays George Harrison.