Front Row Review: Backbeat

Date Posted: 20/10/2011

Re-living the birth of The Beatles, Rebekah Tailor attended the opening night of Backbeat to find out if there’s more to this latest jukebox musical.

UPDATE, 8th Dec: It has been announced that Backbeat will close earlier than planned on 18th February 2012.

I credit the recent torrent of jukebox musicals for both introducing and reacquainting audiences with some of history’s greatest artists and icons. By this measure, Backbeat is the same - initiating a new generation to the birth of The Beatles and re-living their earliest story with a string of rock ‘n’ roll hits thrown in for something which equates to nostalgia. However any similarity with the animation and glitz of its jukebox counterparts ends here; and what ensues is a production which is gritty, absorbing, and completely original.

Backbeat’s focus is the neglected narrative of ‘the fifth Beatle’ - art student-turned-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Casting a spotlight on the triangular relationship between Sutcliffe, his best friend John Lennon, and his lover, German photographer Astrid Kirchherr; the show charts Sutcliffe’s story, as he struggles to balance his art career with his commitment to the band, and his loyalty towards Lennon with his love for Astrid. With the production predominantly set against the bleak backdrop of Hamburg’s seedy red light district, this focus is paralleled by The Beatles’ initial bid for fame and fortune, which sees the five performing rock ‘n’ roll covers, working night after night in the clubs of the Reeperbahn.

It’s the depth of the story which I found particularly captivating - this is one production that doesn’t rely on its musical numbers to sustain an otherwise uninspiring plot. While I would consider this a key strength, I fear it would fail to enthral an audience simply seeking fun, feel-good musical entertainment, and in the harsh trend which sees so many new openings forced to close due to poor ticket sales, it would be a pity if this turned out to be Backbeat’s failing.

Of course there are regular musical interludes presenting a medley of rock ‘n’ roll classics, and while Beatles fans may be disappointed that the only original track is Love Me Do, the succession of well-known numbers, including Twist & Shout, Rock & Roll Music, Long Tall Sally, Please Mr Postman, and Money, performed live on stage, will certainly go some way to making amends. Rather than carrying the story, the musical performances provide moments of light relief, and this is perhaps why Backbeat translates so well to the stage (the production is based on Iain Softley’s 1994 film of the same title).

A simple stage set provides a canvas for a variety of projections, including what are presumably original photographs of the band shot by Kirchher, as well as a montage dedicated to Sutcliffe and Kirchher as the two become close. I particularly liked this creative turn, although there were times when the production felt more like a gallery installation as it tried to strike a balance between its artistic vision and the music - a bit like Sutcliffe…

There’s great chemistry between the actors playing the original Beatles line-up, with all the banter you’d expect of young five lads embarking on an overseas adventure. Andrew Knott is particularly good as a young and tempestuous John Lennon, pocketing the limelight on a number of occasions; while Nick Blood playing Stuart Sutcliffe and Daniel Healy as Paul McCartney, give solid, believable performances. Ironically the key detail which lets them down is their singing, which isn’t particularly strong, and although all five are decent musicians - with the instrumental often masking their voices - it really is the musical performances which could do with some polishing, particularly in the final encore.

Backbeat most definitely appeals to its audience’s emotions, playing on the highs, lows, humorous turns and tragic twists. Those who are familiar with Sutcliffe’s story - or indeed, those who flick through the programme before curtain up - can invariably deduce how the production will finish. All of the dramatics are portrayed on stage, and I can’t help thinking the effect would have been all the more poignant if left to one’s imagination - a simple case of less is more. Having said this, not since Blood Brothers have I witnessed an entire theatre seated in silence still moments after the close of a performance, before being jolted back to reality by the first smatterings of applause and joining in a standard ovation.

Comic moments, dramatic events and tragic turns, enveloped by an interesting storyline and infectious musical numbers; Backbeat has all the ingredients for success. Yet it seems to have divided audiences by the marmite effect; you’ll either love it or hate it, and it’s certainly split opinion here at Group Leisure HQ. Backbeat offers something different from anything else currently booking in the West End - it’s memorable, absorbing and original, and definitely worth a second look.

Backbeat is currently booking at the Duke of York’s Theatre until the 24th March. Performance times are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. 

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