Is it a play or is a musical? Perhaps it’s a bird or a plane? This could make the Whingers’ annual game of Charades very tricky.
Especially since Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys’ Backbeat is based on the 1994 film (which Softley also co-wrote) about The Beatles and joins the tsunami of film-to-stage adaptations flooding the West End at the moment.
With a new book and film (3 hours 28 minutes!) about George Harrison just out and a Beatles’ wedding in the week of its official opening it is somewhat timely.
But what is it?
Play: Billed as “The Birth of the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World”, that band being, of course the Beatles, Backbeat centres on the story of Stuart Sutcliffe one of the Beatles who never made it. No mention of musical here.
Musical: Big cast of 17 performers. Unless it’s the subsidised National Theatre this is a rare sight in a West End play these days.
Play: No overture. No big opening number. We kick off with Brian Epstein languidly dragging one of the many gaspers smoked during the show. Buy shares in herbal cigarettes now!
Musical: How tricky to cast it. They obviously went down the road of looking for actors who can sing and play instruments route rather searching than lookalikes. A wise decision. Daniel Healy has nuances of Paul McCartney in his voice and moves but when the group are forced to don mop-top wigs towards the end John Lennon (Andrew Knott -another of the original The History Boys) looks more like McCartney and George resembles Jemima Rooper’s dragged up Guvnor in One Man,Two Guvnors which is even more confusing as there are constant references to her looking like Ringo in that particular offering.
Play: The actors can act. Nick Blood is a covincing and handsome Stuart Sutcliffe – the artistically talented Beatle who gave it all up for love and painting and almost gets away with wearing sunglasses indoors without looking a dick. Ruta Gedmintas works well as Astrid Kirchherr, even making her wig seem believable. What pretty babies they could produce.
Musical: Lots of projections. And rather good they are too especially during the scene where Stu and Astrid first get it on. But this is what musicals use these days to cut down on the cost of proper sets. The band are trollied in on a platform which moves from upstage to downstage and back monotonously like a lawn mower. That aside the look is rather good with its arched brick tunnels and gantry. But since it’s by Christopher Oram (and Andrew D Edwards) that’s what we’d expect.
Play: See Eduardo Paolozzi portrayed live on stage! Can’t be a musical then.
Musical: David Leveaux directs fluidly but there is the occasional clunk. Never attempt to put a club-in-full-swing scene on stage. A few performers throwing themselves around in front of the band do not a party atmosphere make.
Play: Two blow-jobs. John and Stu are thus relieved live on a stage. That’ll keep the coach parties away. Bare botties and all. Andrew didn’t know where to look.
Musical: There’s a cart/stall set up in the foyer selling tubs of the kind of sweets which you’d have loved from Woolie’s pick-and-mix as a child but as an adult wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot drumstick.
Play: It’s more downbeat than Backbeat at the end with Sutcliffe’s untimely death portrayed on stage. And rather moving it is too, at least for Phil, who felt a little prickle in the corner of his eye…
Musical: …but don’t despair, the tragic ending is quickly forgotten about as they create their own standing ovation at the end, forcing the audience to their feet to rock for a mini-concert by the Beatles at the end. We haven’t felt this coerced since Fela! Perhaps we should have bought those sweeties after all, energy levels low, no sign of us twisting or shouting.
Musical: Clincher. Backbeat merchandise available in the foyer.
So which is it and does it really matter? What do we call this new genre? Playsical or Mulay? This may be a hard sell for tourists looking to see a musical. Bums on seats and all that, even if the audience’s derrieres aren’t on their seats at the end but jiggling uncermoniously in the air.
It’s like Jersey Boys, really. So whatever that was.
Play: Phil remembers the folded paper fortune-teller they used to play with as kids . Your fate was ultimately decided by which Beatle’s name you selected. Strange really as Andrew supposes Phil is old enough to have been an adult when the Beatles became big. Phil blames this on eating Vietnamese prawns.