“THE BIRTH OF THE BEATLES” OR THE STORY OF STUART SUTCLIFFE?
Story by Megan Leahy
Photographs by Cylla von Tiedemann
John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe met back in 1956 when they became roommates at Liverpool College of Art. In 1957, Lennon formed The Quarrymen, and was joined by Paul McCartney in July. A lot happened in 1960: Lennon convinced Sutcliffe to buy a bass and join the group; after toying with a variety of names while touring through Scotland they finally decided on The Beatles; and by August they were off to Germany for what would become a 106-night run of gigs in Hamburg.
Based off the award-winning 1994 British film, Backbeat takes place during these early years of The Beatles, from 1956 to 1962, by which time Brian Epstein had joined them as manager and their debut single Love Me Do had reached No. 17 on the charts (in March 1963, Please Please Me was their first single to reach No. 1).
The bulk of the story takes place in Hamburg and revolves around the triangle that was Sutcliffe, Astrid Kirchheer, the German photographer whom he falls in love with, and his best friend Lennon. In fact the production would more aptly be described as “The Story of Stuart Sutcliffe” than its actual tagline “The Birth of the Beatles”.
With a few exceptions, the plot sticks to the true course of events and in this sense it is an interesting story. But hot off the tales of Jersey Boys’ sweeping success, Backbeat is not the jukebox musical that an audience is likely expecting.
At least in this production, stopped here on tour from London just less than a year after its first performance, the music itself seems to be added in as an afterthought: a stage intermittently pops out to break-up dramatized scenes that, more often than not, involve either Lennon trying to convince Sutcliffe to give up his painting and jump on board with the band, or the latter making out with Kircheer. These equally-timed dialogue-to-song intervals on top of random stage entrances and exits make for a choppy production.
While most of the performance is set in Hamburg’s raunchy basement nightclubs, the production is also injured by the cliché representation of 1960s German youth and avant-garde. Not to mention the atrocious accents. Other than that the cast give decent performances.
Nick Blood lives up to Sutcliffe’s James Dean-style good looks and moody artist temperament. Andrew Knott is a quick and cheeky Lennon and although his vocals are inconsistent, he shines on tracks like Mr. Postman. Singer-songwriter Daniel Healey is the real musical talent here, fittingly playing Paul McCartney.
In the end it remains an entertaining production but is hindered by being misrepresented. Had we gone in to hear about Stuart Sutfcliffe, an interesting story in his own right, we wouldn’t have left feeling disappointed in a the lack of The Beatles.
Backbeat is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until September 2nd. Mirvish is offering rush seats subject to availability for $29.