'Backbeat' (Duke Of York's Theatre) // Words: Gabriella Shimeld-Fenn
Adapted from a 1994 film of the same name, 'Backbeat' chronicles the early days of The Beatles during their period as a 1950’s covers band in the seedy clubs of Hamburg. As well as a fascinating insight into their evolution into the biggest band the world has ever know, it also charts the tragic story of the original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, who dropped out of the band to pursue a life of art, but died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 21.
Nick Blood plays Sutcliffe with brilliant intensity - torn between his friends and a life of potential musical stardom, and the woman he loves and the life of the jobbing artist. He oozes just the right amount of cool insouciance when playing bass in the musical numbers, but also manages to get across that a lot of Stuart’s bravado is a front for someone who is actually rather insecure.
Andrew Knott, by contrast, is a wonderfully bolshie, antagonistic John Lennon – a far cry from the Lennon of later years who would pen 'Imagine' and organise Bed-Ins. The cornerstone of his life at this point is not his iconic writing partnership with Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), but his friendship with Sutcliffe and his determination that they experience this crazy life of rock 'n' roll together.
The dark, minimalist set by Christoper Oram and Andrew D Edwards perfectly captures the aesthetic of 1960’s Berlin, with the projections by Knifedge, and minimal props, enabling easy changes of scene from the sordid life of the nightclubs, to the cinema behind whose flickering screen the band attempt sleep each night, to the apartment of Astrid Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas) – the woman who comes into Stuart’s life and turns all his priorities upside down.
Gedmintas is suitably enigmatic as the alluring figure of Astrid – dressed all in black with her signature cape and cropped blonde hair, she captures Stuart’s attention from the first moment they meet, and sets up a rivalry with Lennon for Stuart’s attentions, which continues until the poignant scene of their reconciliation at his funeral. It’s here that Knott is at his best – reminding us why he was one of the original History Boys and allowing us to see through the cracks in Lennon’s hostile exterior to the profound grief hiding beneath.
However, it’s not all about the tragedy of Sutcliffe’s protracted life. The play also features some fantastic musicianship from the young actors involved, with rollicking covers of songs such as Chuck Berry’s 'Johnny B Goode' and the Isley Brothers’ 'Twist And Shout', as well as an early version of 'Love Me Do' – the only original Beatles song to appear.
Anyone who is even remotely a fan of music from this period will be bound to have a good time – if a theatre full of British people is on its feet and dancing by the end of the night, then you know that something is being done right!
'Backbeat' has performances every Monday to Saturday at the Duke Of York's Theatre in London. For more information, visit backbeatlondon.com.