Telstar - the Joe Meek Story

Nick Moran with James Hicks
Grand Opera House, York, and touring

Telstar publicity image

For the benefit of readers under the age of 45, Joe Meek was the eccentric record producer whose hits included "Telstar", "Have I the Right", "Just Like Eddie" and the gloriously morbid "Johnny, Remember Me". This new play by actors Nick Moran and James Hicks is set in Meek's studio, the scruffy flat over a handbag shop in which these kitschy-but-catchy gems were recorded in the early 60s, and covers the six years between his first chart success and his suicide at the age of 38.

It's no exaggeration to say that Joe Meek's short life was stranger than fiction. He was a tone-deaf songwriter, a spiritualist convinced that he had foretold Buddy Holly's death, and a hopelessly inept businessman who was conned out of his "Telstar" royalties. Like his contemporary Joe Orton he was gay, and like Orton he came to a violent and untimely end. Unlike Orton, however, Meek was a murderer instead of a murder victim - he shot his landlady Mrs Shenton before turning the shotgun on himself. Whatever problems the authors may have faced when adapting Meek's life story for the stage, lack of dramatic material certainly wasn't one of them!

Con O'Neill gives a superb performance in the demanding central role, equally at home with both the comic and tragic aspects of Meek's complex personality. There is a marvellous scene in which Meek coaches his young protégé, peroxide-blond singer Heinz (Adam Rickitt) for his stage act. Having provided Heinz with a glittery suit and a decidedly camp dance routine, Meek is genuinely and endearingly at a loss to understand why the Teddy boys in the audience regularly shower Heinz with abuse! Sadly, Meek's inability to keep up with rapidly changing trends in pop music led to financial and personal disaster. At one point Meek receives a phone call from Brian Epstein, whom he describes as "a lovely man, but he doesn't know what the kids like". The Rolling Stones are written off as "just a little warm-up band". O'Neill's portrayal of the former wonder boy's mental disintegration is truly harrowing, so much so that at there were times when I could hardly bring myself to watch.

Under the direction of Paul Jepson, the entire cast of ten acquit themselves well in what could easily have become a one-man show. Adam Rickitt does wonders with the unsympathetic role of Heinz, the object of Meek's unrequited love; he may be shallow and greedy, but no-one deserves to end up dressed as a farmer in order to promote a record called "Picking My Potatoes". Despite her star billing, Linda Robson has disappointingly little to do as the unfortunate Mrs Shenton but seizes her opportunities with both hands. Gareth Corke makes his mark as Geoff Goddard, Meek's fellow songwriter (and spiritualist) whom he unceremoniously dumps when the first flush of their success began to fade. Callum Dixon offers two nice little cameos - actor John Leyton, who recorded "Johnny, Remember Me", and Screaming Lord Sutch!

Telstar is first-rate touring theatre and a fascinating tribute to Joe Meek, surely one of the most extraordinary personalities in the British music business.

A New Vic Workshop/Eastbourne Theatres/Cambridge Arts Theatre co-production. At the Grand Opera House, York, until 12th February, then touring to Darlington, Guildford, Eastbourne and Manchester.

Bronagh Taggart reviewed this production when it transferred to the New Ambassadors

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson

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