Two years ago, the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ formation was celebrated with a string of releases and cash-ins running from the essential Mono recordings, through the eye-watering naffery of £200 apple-shaped USB sticks to the final indignity of Beatles Rockband. 2012 rolls around and Beatlemania™ strikes again with the half-centenary of their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, celebrated (cashed-in on) by the opening of the first ever authorised recreation of their music in the West End. Presumably subsequent 50th anniversaries will include a crazy naked freak-out on the 73 bus to commemorate the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour and something inappropriate by Neil LaBute tipping its hat to Mark Chapman.
Let It Be is absolutely critic proof, and not simply by virtue of its vast commercial appeal in the manner of We Will Rock You or Rock of Ages, but because it’s not a play. At all. It’s not even a show in the conventional sense of the word: it’s simply a highly proficient Beatles tribute act strutting their mop-top thang with a set-budget the size of the Arts Council’s annual turnover.
There’s actually something pretty winning in the evening’s format, as we move from the Fab Four’s great American debut through a loosely chronological greatest-hits, diving off into a fantastical imagining of the psychedelic stage shows that never were. The opening half-hour is a great success because the performers (Phil Martin, Emanuele Angeletti, Reuven Gershon and Stephen Hill) pull off pitch-perfect renditions of the Beatles’ skiffle-inflected pop. Nailing the gawkiness as well as the pre-Jonas Brothers smothered, kissing-cousins sexuality, even the over-used and over-produced video footage can’t take away the charm of hearing some of the best chart-toppers ever written pulled off with such attention to verisimilitude.
There are flaws here and there: Ringo (Phil Martin) is a bit Dwayne Dibley, a sort of self-contained satire, but then he always was. They probably shouldn’t have played ‘This Boy’, but then neither should The Beatles. The narration is flatter and less necessary than Paul McCartney’s Wings, and the attempts at between-song banter are heinous. The band do a solid job of singing their way through the back-catalogue, but their impersonations are caught somewhere between the muppets who did the voices for the Yellow Submarine film and the actual Muppets.
The fun comes to a screeching halt, however, when we shift from The Beatles’ rough and ready, Hamburg-hardened boppers to the more oblique post-Revolver work intended solely for the studio. Anyone who has ever wished Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band had actually hit the road (and surely that’s Everyone) will rapidly reverse their opinion. Songs that almost get away with it on record – stand up ‘When I’m 64’ and bring ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ with you – are cringe-inducing when given the full day-glo and dancing rocking-horses treatment.
The video work takes a turn for the bloody dreadful here too. Full of family-friendly ‘trippy’ visuals and Captain Obvious mimesis, it’s a mire of strawberries and plasticine porters that nobody needed to see. The Beatles somehow managed to emerge from the psychic Slush Puppy of LSD with something elusive and universal; here it rapidly becomes tiresome and alienating. As if in sympathy, the hitherto impeccable vocal work also breaks down, with an off-key rendition of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that’s the musical equivalent of taking a baseball bat to our collective folk memory.
We reach the show’s nadir in discomforting lurches, from an inexplicable rendition of Lennon’s rubbish ‘Give Peace a Chance’ video-tracked with sanitised clips of political unrest. The producers seem to see no particular harm in then segueing into a slough of Cool Britannia flag waving that’s a hair’s breadth from outright vandalism, as The Beatles’ naïve but thrilling radicalism is boiled down to a head cheese of patriotic nostalgia. It’s telling that the only song from the career-best The Beatles that gets a look in is George Harrison’s maudlin and cosy ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
You realise then that all bad things come to an end, then re-realise what that end must inevitably be –‘Hey Jude’, transformed from celebratory to funereal through insistent repetition. It’s the realisation that when the final days arrive, when the stars collapse and God tucks in creation with a soft blanket of entropy, it won’t be with the defiant cataclysm of ‘A Day in the Life’ or the affirmation of the reciprocity of human love of ‘The End’, but with this. This interminable refrain caught somewhere between schoolboy taunt and the negation of all human achievement. ‘Na Na Na Na Na Na Na’, that relentless, chirpy nihilism drifting from a sad clown atop a black piano twinkling on the event horizon of our final end. Play us out, Paul. You bastard.