A collision of genres, Backbeat isn’t sure whether it’s a play or a musical; perhaps the best description is ‘a play with music’.
Backbeat is based on Iain Softley’s 1994 film of the same name, and the stage production borrows heavily from the movie, telling the story of ‘fifth Beatle’ Stuart Sutcliffe and the band’s early days playing the seedy nightclubs of Hamburg.
An artist friend of John Lennon’s, Sutcliffe is brought into the band by Lennon because he looks like a rockstar. Despite being a pretty poor bass player, the German audiences love the enigmatic band member, rarely seen without his Ray-Bans. However, Stuart soon falls for German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (the person responsible for the Beatles’ mop-top haircuts and some superb early images of the group) and begins to envision a life away from his bandmates and music altogether.
Far from a rose-tinted view of the genesis of perhaps the greatest band of all time, Backbeat shines a light on the real characters behind the public personas. Risking the ire of hardcore fans, the production acknowledges the rumours that there was a little more to the relationship between Lennon and Sutcliffe, and John’s infatuation with the artist is the catalyst for much of the onstage conflict. While Lennon is driven by the need to impress Sutcliffe, a jealous McCartney strives to impress Lennon who he feels he has lost to the handsome, older lad.
Director David Leveaux has assembled a superb cast and each band member plays their own instruments, a decision which is always a gamble but pays off enormously in an intimate theatre like the Duke of York’s, where the audience can see every chord change.
Some critics have whined that the players do not look enough like their alter egos (a complaint as absurd as blaming a Big Mac for not looking like a cow), but even though Daniel Healy as McCartney appears visually to have more in common with Pete Doherty, within 10 minutes his voice and mannerisms are pure Paul. Andrew Knott’s Lennon is all smart-arse aggression and buried vulnerability, while Nick Blood as Sutcliffe turns the brooding charm up to 11 and ensures that all eyes are on him throughout. That these guys not only sing but play live adds to the onstage dynamism and creates an electricity that can only come from seeing a live band.
Backbeat isn’t a flashy show, and the minimal set conveys the grotty reality of the band’s time on the Reeperbahn and gives a sense of what it might have been like to see the band in their primal, early years. The juxtaposition of stark stage and thumping rock n’ roll classics brought to fizzing life by raw vocals and frenzied playing is perfect, and does more to stir the audience than an orchestra playing songs about cats ever could.
When music takes a backseat, projections including photos of the cast, original shots of The Beatles and example of Sutcliffe’s art are used to give depth and context to more emotional scenes.
However, not everything is as pitch-perfect as the music. Although the story is gripping, the script is somewhat clunky and packed with clichés and incredibly heavy-handed exposition that hangs in the air for a second, before clanging to the stage. It’s a shame, as just taking a little more time would smooth the dialogue out considerably. The same goes for the quickfire, knockabout dialogue delivered by the boys at the start of the show. While Softley is trying to depict a gang of lads who know each other inside-out, the effect is closer to a bad Marx Brothers tribute act.
Those who aren’t Beatles aficionados need not be put off. Sure, there are some in-jokes for the diehards, and slightly too many references about to how the boys will ‘change the world forever’, but for the most part, this is a story about a woman, two men, and their contrasting ambitions.
Even if you don’t enjoy The Beatles’ music, because the band were mostly a covers act while in Hamburg, only a couple of the songs in the show are Fab Four originals.
Backbeat is far from being just another lazy jukebox musical chucked into a West End theatre to make easy money from tourists. With its strong story, superb cast, smart staging and fantastic music, it’s in a different class to Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, et al.
Unfortunately, the show can’t quite embrace its status as ‘a play with music’, and falls into the musical-esque trap of needing to send the audience home on a high, meaning the finale is almost as jarring as the end of Saturday Night Fever. Despite Backbeat’s story finishing on a sober note, the whole cast appear back on stage for a mini Beatles concert, dancing and clapping and urging the audience to do the same. It’s entertaining enough, but one can’t help but feel as if you’ve been coerced into doing the conga at a wake.
As it stands, this is a funny and moving production, filled with brilliant music and performances; but with a little bit more work, Backbeat could be a stand-out on the West End.