Adapted for the stage by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys
Duke of York's Theatre

Backbeat publicity image

Backbeat hedges its bets rather well. It is ostensibly a stage version of Iain Softley's 1994 movie that told the Stuart Sutcliffe story.

However, for those that are not particularly interested in the Beatle who died tragically early, the show can also be enjoyed as a high quality Beatles tribute concert that concentrates solely on the early years from 1960-1963 and ends just as the Fab Four get hip and hit the top.

In the early scenes, a quartet called The Quarrymen look like the skiffle band that they are and easily accommodate a fifth member, hardly fazed by artist Sutcliffe's inability to play a note.

Stu, played by Nick Blood, is John Lennon's mate and that is enough, especially since Andrew Knott's Lennon is tediously overbearing, proudly spouting controversial opinions as if he was the world's first rebel.

The band begin to develop a sound but are still only covering rock and roll classics such as Johnny B Good.

A trip to Hamburg leads to greater dramas as the boys get laid, idolised and then deported. The latter action has less to do with the sex, booze and drugs than the fact that George is only 17.

By this stage, the band have got into their stride and the music is great, as one would expect from the most famous pop group of them all.

The boys are supported by a dedicated and highly adaptable team of actor-dancers and the only bum note is the fact that Daniel Healy as (the future Sir) Paul McCartney plays the guitar right-handed, which clashes with projections of photos taken by Astrid Kirchherr.

Ruta Gedmintas plays the impossibly tall, bleach blonde who becomes a central character after being introduced to the band by their first groupie, her boyfriend Klaus.

Soon enough he has been ditched by the photographer for Stu, whose main legacy lies in renaming the band.

Confrontations follow, not with noble Klaus but abrasive John, described with justification by Astrid as "the angriest man I have ever met".

Mr Angry doesn't like losing Stu's devotion, nor his guitar playing, though the latter is at best limited.

The second half turns considerably darker as a rare illness begins to affect Sutcliffe's behaviour and health, before new manager Brian Epstein earns his keep by sacking a remarkably accepting Pete Best.

Whatever its creators might wish, the heart of Backbeat lies in the music. While the story can be touching, much of it is predictable and the boys have undeveloped characters and a knack of speaking in platitudes.

However, when Paul (who happened to get married once again on the day that the play opened, explaining his absence on opening night) starts composing and John tells him that his creation is shite but then gives it an edge, you begin to understand what made the Liverpudlians so special.

This is consolidated as the band play their hearts out much to the delight of an audience that knows and presumably loves every tune, going mad at the end as Twist and Shout and Love Me Do show a taste of what was to follow.

Half a century on, The Beatles still have a universal appeal to rockers of all ages and so the odds are that Backbeat will sell well, providing strong competition for its close American cousin just along the road, Million Dollar Quartet.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Backbeat

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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