“Do you want to be part of the group, or do you want to be an individual?”
Telling the ‘origin story’ of the Beatles, how they paid their dues as a rock’n’roll covers band in Hamburg with their original line-up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, Backbeat is actually less Beatles-centric than one might expect. The focus of the show, written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys from Softley’s 1994 film of the same name, is actually the relationship between original bassist and visual artist Stuart Sutcliffe and the two main figures in his life: best friend Lennon who teaches him guitar so that he can join the band on their trip and abandon art school, and Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer who falls passionately for him and recognises his true artistic potential.
It is this conflict that forms the backbone of the show – Sutcliffe struggling to balance his best friend and his lover, the band and his art – all underpinned by the knowledge that his cruel early death from a brain haemorrhage came just as the Beatles were about to hit the big time. And it is clear that these are the only really fully-fleshed characters in the show: Nick Blood’s achingly cool and handsome Sutcliffe strikes a magnetically seductive pose, connecting beautifully with Ruta Gedmintas’ coolly composed Astrid and sparking well with Andrew Knott’s bolshy, hero-worshipping Lennon. They make an intriguing threesome and in some ways it is a shame that the show doesn’t get to delve more deeply into these relationships, particularly between Sutcliffe and Lennon.
For the focus is shared by the young Beatles too, ever-present in the story, trundling forward and back on a moving platform to play through the rock’n’roll covers they were employed to perform in this Hamburg club, though dramatically their role is rather limited. Even Paul McCartney, a personable turn from Daniel Healy, is restricted to something of a cameo role, really only connecting with Lennon in a moment of early songwriting and clashing over business decisions later on. These provide the moments of recognition as we see the band we know so well beginning to form, especially as Astrid’s creative side helps to create their distinctive image, but they also perversely point up the lack of dramatic interest in this side of the story – there are no surprises when it comes to the development of the band.
But there is no doubting that Backbeat makes for an evening of entertainment that feels a cut above other shows that fall more easily into the jukebox categorisation. For all the moments of clunky staging, and there are a few, there are also moments of visual grace in Christopher Oram’s design and David Leveaux’s direction finds moments of quietly touching emotion in amongst the dodgy dancing, bare buttocks and effervescent energy of the band.