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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Backbeat
Duke of York's Theatre  Autumn-Winter 2011 - 2012

Before they were the world's greatest rock band, before two of them were the world's greatest rock songwriters, even before they had the world's most famous haircuts, they were a scruffy leather-jacketed band from Liverpool playing hard-rocking covers of Good Golly Miss Molly and the like in a Hamburg strip club. 

And there were five of them.

Backbeat is the story of Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatle who chose not to be. Sutcliffe joined the band in 1960 and played the Hamburg gigs with them before deciding, encouraged by his German girlfriend Astrid Kerchherr, to quit and follow his other artistic impulse as a painter. 

The others returned to Liverpool, met Brian Epstein and George Martin and replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr; and Sutcliffe died of a brain haemorrhage in 1962. 

Playwrights Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys have adapted the story from the 1993 film Softley wrote with others, and it has a nicely cinematic feel, flowing smoothly from band performances to backstage conversations to scenes elsewhere and back again. 

Sutcliffe's story, as presented here, is of a nice guy who really wants to be a painter but whose best friend lures him into being a musician, which is fun too. When he falls in love – and the script, based partly on Astrid Kerchherr's memoirs, presents her as totally innocent and in no way a Yoko figure – the conflict between romance and loyalty to his buddies compounds his dilemma.

The best thing about the show is the music – the actors play and sing onstage and capture the raw energy of the Hamburg-era Beatles – and the sense we get of Lennon and McCartney just beginning to find their voices, as writers, performers and personalities. 

And therein lies the biggest weakness of the show (as it was of the film) – that ultimately we are more interested in Lennon and McCartney than Sutcliffe and Kerchherr.

John will forever be a more fascinating character than Paul, Paul more than George, and even Pete Best more interesting than Sutcliffe, and the lovers' story, which should be central, plays like the minor historical footnote it is. 

The authors take some small liberties with chronology and history, confessed to in the program, but their biggest innovation (which you'll take as either invention or insight) is presenting John Lennon as having a rival's jealousy of Astrid and an idolisation of Stu that is more than just a buddy's affection. 

Andrew Knott plays that aspect of Lennon without being too obvious, Nick Blood makes Sutcliffe seem quite ordinary, and Ruta Gedmintas is a pretty blonde, which is really all the script asks of Astrid.

Backbeat is fun in the same way Million Dollar Quartet is – we get to hear some great rock'n'roll with just enough story to tie it together. And while that is fairly thin gruel even by West End musical standards, you may find it enough for the proverbial Good Night Out.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Backbeat - Duke of York's 2011

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