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First things first. This is not a play about The Beatles. This is a play about five boys who went out to Hamburg and came back as men. And what a journey it was.
Backbeat, based on the 1994 film of the same name, is the latest in a long line of ‘jukebox’ musicals to hit the West End in recent years. Focussing on the friendship between John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe (who left the group even before so-called ‘Fifth Beatle’ Pete Best) and set against the grimy industrial backdrops of Hamburg and Liverpool, it’s the story of a band on the rise and a love affair which changed the course of music history.
However, where other jukebox musicals have thrown together a loose story around a group’s hits, Backbeat tells the story of the world’s most famous band using other people’s music (covers from the band’s early days) sung and played live by the actors. The result is something much closer to Jersey Boys than Mamma Mia – a piece of work with a life of its own whose music is fully integrated with a compelling and sharply written story. Co-written by original screenwriter writer Iain Softley and playwright Stephen Jeffreys, the script is a beautifully sparse collage of scenes mixing dirty, busy gigs in low bars with spare, beautiful moments of love between Sutcliffe (broodingly handsome Nick Blood) and German photographer Astrid Kircherr (luminous Ruta Gedmintas). Christopher Oram and Andrew D Edwards create a washed out world of iron walkways and sleek sliding panels, while the projection work of Knifedge merges Sutcliffe’s art and stills of the actors with Kircherr’s iconic photos of the group. The visual language of the play breathes alongside the performances.
There are no half-hearted romantic impressions of The Beatles here. Andrew Knott’s Lennon is a crude lad’s lad, fighting, swearing and fucking his way across Hamburg with the burning ambition to be a star. Nick Blood makes Stuart a true Romantic, taking in his early crazed days as a reactionary painter, the musical and sexual awakening in Hamburg and gorgeous grasped moments of happiness. As the woman who Stuart left The Beatles for, Ruta Gedmintas finds a flint-hard heart in the play’s final scenes, those huge blue eyes flashing fire and sadness as she fights to save Stuart’s memory, and, in doing so, creates the iconic Beatles imagery that prevails.
It isn’t just for Beatles fans. It’s loud, brash and cool, full of swagger and cigarette smoke, exquisitely capturing the pain of youth, falling in love and the electric energy of live music.
Quite simply, Backbeat blew me away.
Backbeat is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London until 24 March 2012, you can get tickets here.
Words: Dan Usztan