Backbeat (Citizens Theatre)

Published

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Dominic Maxwell-Lewis

A stage version of hugely successful film Backbeat is something that writer and director Iain Softley has said he has wanted to do since he made the film back in 1994. It’s easy to understand why, especially when performed so deftly by such a strong cast as this.

The story is of the love triangle between early fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, his girlfriend, Astrid Kircherr, and John Lennon during the infancy of The Beatles at the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg. The relationship between Astrid and Stuart puts strains on both the band and Stuart’s friendship with Lennon as The Beatles go from strength to strength.

What is immediately striking about the play is the technicality of the production. The opening scenes of then art student, Stuart Sutcliffe, miming working on a canvas are displayed with projections of paint splashing moodily against the backdrop of the steel-like wall that serves as a cold ‘grim up North’ industrial landscape for the scenes in Liverpool. With many moving stage parts and visual additions it is immediately a very arresting experience but somehow leaves you feeling that the story would dwindle and suffer without its filmic embellishments. This is not to say that they are there to compensate for any lack of dynamism in the ensemble. Andrew Knott’s portrayal of John Lennon has many elements to it.

The bolshy anti-intellectualism of his public demeanour and the softer, more private side of his character are balanced extremely well and there’s a genuine feeling that a person is onstage rather than just part of a character. This extends to the performance scenes where hugely impressive musical abilities are exhibited by all. These scenes capture the early Beatles at a time when they reputedly had the energy of a punk band.

The development of The Beatles’ now internationally famous songs takes a very amusing, though borderline pastiche, line in incidental scenes of songwriting (most notably Paul McCartney sitting on the side of the stage during one scene struggling with lyrics to Please Tease Me which, with the help of a passing John Lennon, is moulded into Please Please Me). It is in moments such as these when a fearfully doe-eyed approach to the imagining of the story becomes noticeable. This is thankfully saved by a shift of focus in the second half, as Sutcliffe’s health declines and the play changes course. The highly enjoyable first half, with its montage-like speed becomes a more resolute affair in the second. This is helped largely by Alex Robertson’s noble portrayal of Stuart Sutcliffe, whose relationship with John Lennon hits more obstacles. The pairing is truly engaging, with a camaraderie that is unbelievably candid and at times quite moving.

The decision to stage the world premiere at the Citizens speaks volumes for its reputation as a theatre that attracts new and exciting writing. Practically speaking, it has the advantage of distancing the play from the nostalgia that it would attract back in Liverpool. I was glad to see that the production did not descend into a trip down memory lane. The ‘softly softly’ approach at the beginning is admittedly quite disconcerting. It is sophisticated in its storytelling and skillful in its performance. A first class production.