Review by Donna Jackson
There are times, when you sit down to write a review, when you know, even before you start, that your words can never do justice to the quality of the performance that you've just seen.
This is one of those times.
"Epstein: The Man Who Made the Beatles", starring Andew Lancel and Will Finlason is being performed at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool until Saturday December 1.
Finlason plays "this boy" - an anonymous character who spends the evening getting to know Brian Epstein. He begins by warning the audience what to expect - or, rather, what not to expect. This is not a play that sets out to tell the 'truth', whatever that may be, about the Beatles or about Brian; instead, it offers an insight into Brian the man, and in that aim it succeeds brilliantly.
Brian was a genius, but he was also human and it is the human side of Brian that Andrew Lancel brings to life. By the end I felt as if I knew and understood Brian for the first time and, again for the first time, I realised how sad I was that he had died so young. It's not that I wasn't sad about his death before, it's more that, by the end of the play, Brian was a real person to me and I felt his loss at a much deeper and much more personal level.
For two hours last night, Andrew Lancel did not play the part of Brian Epstein; Andrew Lancel WAS Brian Epstein. When he first appeared, there was a collective gasp from around the auditorium; it was as if Brian had been reincarnated. Every gesture, every stance, every intonation, every raised eyebrow or half-smile, was absolutely spot on. Even when not the focal point (for example, when video projections took the audience's attention), Lancel remained totally in character. Indeed, on a couple of the video clips I had to look twice to realise that it was not Brian on the screen, but Andrew Lancel recreating the interview. During some of the flashback scenes -- recreating moments from Brian's childhood and youth -- Lancel's portrayal remained convincingly accurate. Suddenly there was Brian as a child playing with a model coach with Joe Flannery; or a teenage Brian at school off to play rugger. No make-up required, no scenery or other props to create the illusion, just totally brilliant acting.
To put it quite simply, Andrew Lancel as Brian Epstein was perfect.
Equally praiseworthy was his co-star, Will Finlason, who played the young Scouser who wanted to get to know Brian better. Trained in Manchester, but with Liverpool roots, Finlason is supremely talented. His portrayal of This Boy was so natural that it was easy to forget that he was acting. His awe of Brian, his concern for Brian's health, his respect for Brian's ability, and his affection for Brian-the-man, were so 'real' that the audience shared the roller-coaster of emotions as the play progressed. His musical talent was just as apparent and his performance of "Baby It's You" (one of my all-time favourite songs performed by The Beatles) was hauntingly beautiful. Again, it was perfect casting.
The quality of the acting was such that it was easy to forget that this wasn't a real conversation and that there was a script. However, perhaps it was also easy to forget that there was a script because of the sheer quality of it too. Finlason didn't just sound like a Scouse lad because of his accent; the words and phrases he used were right too. It wasn't just the lines that made the script so perfect though, it was also the way that Scriptwriter Andrew Sherlock handled sensitive issues such as Brian's drug use and sexual preference. Both were featured so naturally that, instead of becoming the story themselves, they served to contribute to our understanding of Brian the man.
Equally impressive, and important to the focus of the play, was the handling of the many myths surrounding the Beatles' story. For example, who was Raymond Jones? When did Brian first hear of the Beatles? As far as "This Boy" and the script were concerned, the answers didn't matter because it was Brian who was important. And I agree. While it might be fun to debate these things back and forth in the pub over a pint, ultimately the Beatles story, and Brian's story, is much bigger than that and much more important than that. It is instead, as Brian reminded This Boy, about moments such as the little thrill of excitement that you get when you hear the opening notes of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Brian understood that, and that was his genius; thanks to this play, we have been reminded of that.
Although I understand that the producers want to take this play on tour -- and I hope they do; everyone should have a chance to see it! -- there can be no more perfect setting or venue than the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool. This Boy opens and closes the play by claiming that Brian "was, is and always will be one of us" and by that he means part of Liverpool. This year, the city recognised Brian's importance by renaming the Neptune Theatre in his honour, and, as such, Epstein the Play had to have its world premiere at The Epstein Theatre.
Above the stage at the Epstein Theatre is a large, beautifully embossed letter "N", a nod to the theatre's past. However, for anyone who knew Brian, loved Brian, or, having seen this play, feels that little bit closer to Brian, the "N" above the stage can only ever stand for one word -- "Nemperor".
Thank you Brian; without you and the Beatles, my world would be a sadder, lonelier and colder place.
Thank you Andrew, Will and everyone associated with "Epstein" for bringing Brian alive again and for giving him his rightful place in the Beatles' story and in my love for The Beatles. I never knew how much I missed Brian's presence until last night. Now, I'll never forget.
Epstein the Play is on at The Epstein Theatre Liverpool until December 1 and tickets are still available. For more information, visit the theatre website: http://www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk/theatre/epstein-the-play/
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