Backbeat ****

The Beatles are not only one of the most celebrated artistic sparks in history; they are also one of the most romanticised.  After all, they were clean-cut decent lads who sang about love and peace, unlike most other rock acts with their anger and songs filled with blatant sexual overtones.  And yet, anyone who knows history knows that The Beatles themselves were far from squeaky clean, between the in-fighting, womanising, dubious life choices and drive for attention.

Iain Softley’s Backbeat is an odd production because it manages to romanticise an era while trying to tell the ‘real’ story behind one of The Beatles lesser known tales: Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatle that got away.  Sutcliffe was John Lennon’s best friend and played bass with the band, but his great passion was painting.  Sutcliffe’s lack of musical talent would lead to many in-band arguments, which would only alienate him further.  He would fall in love with Astrid Kirchherr, herself an artist who greatly affected the look that The Beatles would later adopt, and chose a life with her over being in the band.

Softley has adapted the play from his own film from the nineties and serves as both director and writer to mostly great effect.  The production actually expands on the film, spending more time looking at Sutcliffe’s artistic life and giving more attention to each of the main characters.  As a result, it feels like a much fuller story than the film version.

And it is the director in Softley that is the production’s greatest victory.  Backbeat is a visual feast of set, sound, light, costume and performance, and it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the raw energy that he manages to create.  He has openly admitted that his main drive in doing the play was to better utilise music, and the live performances throughout the production are all stellar and infectious.

However, it is the writer in Softley that manages to be the weakest component.  Yes, the story of Sutcliffe is an interesting one filled with many great ‘what ifs’, but anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock knows the outcome: The Beatles make it larger than they ever dreamed but without Sutcliffe (or Pete Best, presented here with sympathy and given some of the best moments).  The play focuses on the ‘what’ of the story rather than the ‘why’ or the ‘how’, which results in many scenes that feel flat and pointless.  It is also a play with a bit of an identity crisis.  It says that it’s about the triangle between Stu, John and Astrid, but that aspect is only hinted at, almost sidelined for moments of bickering and discovery amongst the band.

But there is still much to be impressed with.  It is well designed, with clever uses of projection, light and moving walls to make an intimate story feel much larger, and it is universally well acted.  It’s hard playing highly identifiable people, and yet the acting company manage to play their famous parts well, neither relying on caricature or mimicry.  And though the five actors playing John, Paul, George, Pete and Stu don’t sound anything like the original Beatles, they still sound great and play their instruments well, which is indeed an accomplishment in itself.

Yes, it has a flawed script that needs further work.  True, the play ends on a very confused note that seems to mock any emotional response to its final scenes.  And yes, this is a pre-London try out, meaning that there’s much work to be done.  But it is all performed with such great gusto that it’s hard not to be impressed, making Backbeat very good theatre indeed.

Until March 6th at The Citizens.

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