Monday, 26 September 2011

Backbeat Review

On Saturday the 24th of September 2011 ‘Backbeat’ debuted in London’s West end, having originally been performed in 2010 at Glasgow’s Citizen Theatre.

Based on the 1994 film of the same name by director Ian Softley, it tells the story of Fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe and his love affair with Astrid Kirchherr, against the backdrop of The Beatles’ early days spent in the clubs of Germany’s infamous Red Light district of Hamburg.

On this opening night the impressive Duke of York Theatre was full to capacity with a mixed age audience eagerly waiting to be transported back to the beginnings of Beatlemania. I noticed a fair amount of young under twenties in the audience and wondered what they already knew about the early days of The Fab Four. The cast itself was a young collection of actors, but all the main parts were suitably cast especially the roles of Lennon and McCartney. John and Paul were played by Andrew Knott and Daniel Healy respectively, reunited from the Glasgow production, alongside new cast members Nick Bold as Stuart and Ruta Gedmintas as Astrid, Will Payne as George Harrison and Oliver Bennett as Pete Best. They all provided great characterisations not only in their acting abilities but also with each providing accurate vocalisations of both Liverpudlian and German accents.

The show opened with the loud beat of a bass drum which certainly got the audience ready for the Rock and Roll assault that was to come. This of course was The Beatles before Brian Epstein – the embryo Beatles right at the start – and the music played live by the cast effectively demonstrated their musical development.

The show began by setting out the relationship between John and Stuart and made it clear that Stuart was not a musician of the same standard as John, Paul and George, but a gifted artist. The opening scene showed Stuart, paint brush in hand, air painting a huge canvas with bold brush strokes in time to the beating drum as images of Stuarts original paintings were quickly projected onto screens on the stage, vivid Reds and Blacks showing Stuarts work as abstract expressionist. Then John entered carrying a guitar case and it was here that the first of a few deviations from the official story take place. I could understand the need for some of these – time restrictions, for instance – but others seemed unnecessary. For example, in the guitar case is a bass guitar that, in the play, John has bought for Stuart as John wants him to join the band and he thinks that the bass, with only four strings, will be easier for Stuart to learn. A scene, a few minutes later, showed Stuart selling a painting for £60 – the event that, in actuality, allowed Stuart to buy his bass.

Why this part of the story was changed for the play I don’t know, and this wasn’t the only time when the real story was changed seemingly without reasons. The strangest of these was when Astrid gave a copy of ‘Love me Do’ to Stuart; an event that did not happen at all as Stuart died several months before the record was made. I don’t want to be negative about the production as it was a fantastic show, but for non Beatles fans who may not know the real story I feel a lot of damage can be done by bending the truth.

The show moved along at a fast pace, interspersed with musical numbers. The story takes you from Liverpool to Hamburg, from the Cavern club to the Indra Club and the Star Club, from the roof tops of Hamburg to the Abbey Road recording studios.

The play invoked the period of the early Sixties. The stage set had black brick walls with little arches in the stage wings, a steel staircase to one side, and an overhead walkway gantry crossing the whole stage. Together with neon lighting and the use of audio and back screen projected images, it really set the mood of Liverpool’s backstreets and the seedy alleyways of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.

As well as the set invoking the period special praise must go the costume designers. The whole cast were attired in accurate period costumes from the early Beatles Leather jackets with knitted cuffs, to the bohemian clothes of the patrons of Germany’s Red Light district.

The instruments used by the cast were also in keeping with those used by The Beatles at the time: John’s Rickenbacker 325 in a natural wood finish, (switching in the second half to the famous repainted Black version), George’s Futurama and then Gretsch Duo Jet, Paul’s Rosetti solid Severn electric guitar then Hofner violin Bass, and of course Stuart’s Hofner 333 Bass guitar as well as the proper amplifiers used at the time – Elpico ac 55, Truevoice and Fender amps.
This brings me on to the music in the show, all played live by the cast. The music was raw, loud and vibrant and special mention must go to Daniel Healy as ‘Paul McCartney’ who played some fantastic acoustics numbers including a great solo version of ‘A Taste of Honey’.

The show was well-acted and well performed, and the cast received a standing ovation at the end of the show. Despite the occasional inaccuracies, I would recommend seeing this production. For a fun night out hearing some classic Rock and Roll songs played live and loud, and seeing The Birth of The Beatles at the same time, you can’t go wrong.

BackBeat is on at the Duke of York's Theatre, St Martins Lane, London, Tel: 08448 717 623
For more information and to buy tickets, visit the show’s website:

Review by Glenn Mitchell, September 26th, 2011

Glenn is a member of the four-piece 60s tribute band, The Cavernites. 
Visit The Cavernites website  for more information.
He is also organising the First North Wales Beatles Festival -- Day Tripper Weekender -- taking place from June 22-24, 2012.  More details on this great event can be found here

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