London Lookout: Back to the Beginning
Backbeat is the newest musical adaptation of “the birth of the greatest rock & roll band in the world”, The Beatles. Did you know there used to be five Beatles? Where the Beatles got their big brake? Who gave the Beatles their name? I sure didn’t. But after seeing Backbeat, I learned so much about the start of the Beatles while having a rockin’ time.
Based on the film of the same name and adapted by its original writers, Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, Backbeat starts in good ol’ England with John Lennon convincing his friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, an art student, to join his band as the bass player because he knew they were going to do something great. As much as the musical is on the start of the Beatles, the show concentrates on the character of Stuart, the fifth Beatle, and his relationships with the band, John, and his love, Astrid.
One of my apprehensions about the musical was that it was just going to be random Beatles songs strung together. While the show includes some Beatles originals (“Twist & Shout”, “Love Me Do”), most of the songs are popular songs from the 1950’s that the Beatles would have played in clubs before writing their own music. The songs chosen were songs that the Beatles covered on their With the Beatles and Rock’n’Roll Music albums (“Rock’n’Roll Music”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “Bad Boy” “Money (That’s What I Want)”).
What made this interesting and hidden story come to life was the work of the actors and actresses. They really captured these real-life people’s distinct and well-known characteristics.
Nick Blood as Stuart Sutcliffe has a moving performance as the stoic, tough, unmistakably cool guy. Although Blood plays his character very mysterious in the beginning, throughout the show we see him slowly open up more as his life spins out of control. Blood’s romantic interest, Astrid Kirchherr, is played by Ruta Gedmintas. Gedmintas’ character goes on an emotional roller coaster from the time she meets the Beatles. She does a good job showing Astrid’s love and care for Stuart, although at times the character’s emotions are over intensified.
Andrew Knott played the infamous John Lennon to a tee. His performance nailed Lennon’s real life characteristics from the way he held the guitar to the faces he makes. Knott, throughout, shows the complex character being his fun-loving self pushing to make the band great while struggling to keep his friend Stuart apart of the dream.
Daniel Healy, Will Payne, and Oliver Bennett play Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best, respectively. The musical mainly focuses on the above three characters but these three are not shoved in a corner. Each does a phenomenal job portraying their characters. We see the straight shooting Paul insistent on making the Beatles the greatest, the youngster George growing into a man, and the quiet drummer Pete sharing in all the adventures of the start of the Beatles. Each has part of their story peak through the major story. The best appearance though is of Adam Sopp as Ringo Starr. Although his entrance comes at a low point with the firing of Pete, his goofy smile will get you laugh.
One of the coolest elements of Backbeat is the fact that all the actors play their own instruments. There is no orchestra and no dubbing. For that I give all the actors major kudos. They really became the Beatles.
Director David Leveux and his design team worked to create a show with out too main bells and whistles to distract you from the story. The staging of the musical is very simple, with the stage being open all the way to the back walls. This at first threw me off because I am not used to professional theatre being so open but after the first scene, I loved it. The whole ensemble had to be on their game the whole time (which they were) and let the audience really become apart of the show. To that extent, the audience was indeed an integral part of the show. They were the audience in club (helped by ensemble members coming into the audience) and at one point the TV show John was watching.
Another important part of the staging was projections and videos. These were highly effective because they were actual pictures and video clips of the Beatles when they were in Hamburg. With a fun curtain call mini-concert, the cast calls on the audience to get up, sing-along, and dance. And after this show you will definitely leave dancing out of the theatre. Stay tuned to Luner on Theatre for our Brand New Series, London Lookout, featuring our West End Correspondent Molly Tom! And of course continue to check out the rest of Luner on Theatre for all the theatre news you don’t only want but need to know!