For the next ten years, barely a month will go by that does not bring with it some form of 50 year anniversary connected to Liverpool’s most famous musical export. It is now half a century since the Beatles had their first number one, half a century since Shea Stadium and eventually it will be half a century since the ‘Let It Be’ feuds. At the start of this decade of anniversaries, then, it’s perhaps fitting to look back at the beginning, at the band’s origins. This new West End stage production of Iain Softley’s 1994 film Backbeat does just that, charting the band’s very early days, with a particular focus on the tragic story of ‘lost Beatle’ Stuart Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe was a talented visual artist, and adored by John Lennon. In the opening scenes, Lennon is seen teaching Sutcliffe the basics of bass guitar just to ensure he could get into the band and on a train bound for Hamburg with the rest of the boys. In Germany they play in some seriously dodgy basement bars, refine their sound, and meet Astrid Kerchherr, the woman credited with honing the band’s look. Kerchherr was also to be the love of Stuart Sutcliffe’s life – albeit a life sadly cut short by a brain haemorrhage when he was just 21.
Ian Softley and Stephen Jeffreys explore Sutcliffe’s attempts to reconcile his idea of himself as an artist with playing in a “pop” group, and his brief but passionate relationship with Astrid; as a result the production is a cut above the average back-catalogue musical, poignant and character-driven rather than upbeat and inane. Which is not to say that David Leveaux’s production doesn’t feature plenty of strong musical numbers. What is surprising is the lack of Lennon and McCartney originals, apart from the first drafts of ‘Love Me Do’; what you get instead is the classic Motown and rhythm and blues tracks that the pair loved, and which shaped their music: Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’, The Miracles’ ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, The Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist And Shout’.
The performers do not go in for outright impersonations, but instead offer more impressionistic portraits of the characters they’re playing. Daniel Healy, in particular, captures the vocal tics and head shakes of Paul McCartney, and Andrew Knott is hugely charismatic and often very funny as Lennon, as infuriating as he is engaging, just like the man himself. Rather less is known, of course, about Sutcliffe – he doesn’t exist in the popular conciousness in the same way as his bandmates – but Nick Blood imbues his performance with an enigmatic calm and intelligence that makes it easy for the audience to understand why Lennon idolises him, and Astrid loves him.
Sometimes the dialogue feels laden with a gravity that doesn’t quite ring true – there’s an awkward over-reliance on foreshadowing – but that same intensity also gives rise to moments of beauty: Astrid says that Stuart often sounds more like a poet than a painter, and some of his lyrical speeches are genuinely affecting. It all adds up to a very enjoyable whole: more of a play with songs than a musical, and one with more heart than you might be given to expect.