Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Lennon's Banjo

Rob Fennah (from the book, Julia's Banjo by Rob Fennah and Helen A Jones)
Pulse Records in association with Bill Elms
Epstein Theatre

Lennon's Banjo

First of all, we need to talk about the roads. If there’s a city in the UK whose major roads are in a worse state of repair than Liverpool’s, I can only imagine its citizens get about by means of those buggies NASA developed in preparation for exploring the terrain of Mars. On the homeward journey, in particular, I had the New Christie Minstrels’ classic, “Three Wheels on my Waggon”, playing on loop in my head. Even the M62 features potholes and divots galore—God preserve any motorcyclist travelling in or out of the city after dark.

Now, the theatre. The Epstein is a lovely place to spend an evening: lovingly restored a few years back; walls a restful moss green, boasting gilt plaster mouldings (the “N” above the stage, I am told, harks back to the original name of the venue—the Neptune). The seats are clean and comfortable, offering better legroom than many a high-profile venue. If it has the feel of a ‘local theatre for local people’, never fear. There’s nothing League of Gentlemen about the place—outsiders such as myself can expect a warm welcome, both in the auditorium and in the bar. The venue is up a couple of flights of stairs, but there is disabled access (contact the Epstein beforehand).

Lennon’s Banjo, (adapted for the stage from the novel Julia’s Banjo by Rob Fennah and Helen A Jones), fits neatly into the Epstein’s portfolio, in telling a Liverpool story in a Liverpool setting.

Barry (Eric Potts, exuding warmth and nerdy jollity), a likeable but obsessive Beatles tour guide, finds an unopened letter, sent from John Lennon to his best mate Stuart Sutcliffe. In the letter is a coded message, hinting where John stashed the banjo his mother Julia gave him—the first instrument he learned to play. Barry sets out to find the long lost banjo, enlisting the help of Steve (Jake Abraham) and Joe (Mark Moraghan), who own a pop memorabilia shop, but are desperate to escape to Tenerife ("the next time I hear 'Yellow Submarine', I might kill somebody!").

Also in pursuit of the instrument—which Barry estimates might be worth £5m—is Travis from Texas (Danny O’Brien). Travis is a chancer, whose dealings in art auctions have left him in hock to a bitter rival, De Vito (Roy Carruthers), and even more in hock (to the tune of $300k) to a Latino loanshark, Bakula (also Carruthers). Travis persuades his lovely wife, Cheryl (Stephanie Dooley), to chat up Barry and try to get hold of the letter; a move that leads to complication, conflict and confusion—not just in Barry’s mind, but in the heart of his would-be lady friend, local landlady, Brenda (Lynn Francis).

Will Barry or Travis (or someone else, or no one) find the precious banjo? And, if it ever turns up, who will buy it and for how much? Will Barry finally get the girl (and if so, which girl)? Will Travis scrape through this latest adventure in less than two pieces? Will Steve and Joe ever get to Tenerife? All these questions and more may be answered.

The script occasionally feels like it wants to be a screenplay (and you can see how that might work), but there are plenty of opportunites for cast and audience to have fun (watching Jake Abraham revel in the chance to play a Manc scally is a favourite moment for tonight’s crowd).

Special guest appearances are something of an Epstein speciality. Some nights (tonight included), Pete Best makes an appearance as himself. Pete’s a little nervous when he enters, but he needn’t be; this home crowd loves him and, once he realises that, he settles nicely and, by the end of his scene, is delivering his lines like a pro.

Richard Foxton, a skilled and experienced designer, uses what must be a restricted budget to expert effect, taking us from tour bus to auction room, from hotel room to graveyard to bar, club and pub etc., with minimal fuss or strain on our suspension of disbelief. There are some neat little touches throughout this show—Barry’s big frame in Beatles era clothes, scene changes accompanied by intros to Beatles songs played on a banjo.

No doubt director Mark Heller, will coax his cast to sharpen their timing on the gags and leave a little more space for the drama and poignancy but, glancing around at the close, I’d say a good time was had by all.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson