The Fifth Beatle, Backbeat: the Story of Stuart Sutcliffe
Backbeat is not Jersey Boys; it is not a musical rendition of a boy band making it big in the 60’s. This is a retelling of how the fab four originated, the spark that became the idea, that became the Beatles.
Based on Iain Softley’s 1994 movie, the stage production focuses on the band’s early years as they hone their talents and image. The main character Stuart Sutcliffe has been called the “lost Beatle.” An art school buddy of Lennon’s Stuart was never a musician and never wanted to make it big with the rock band. He joined the band based on his friendship with Lennon, rich with undertones subtly displayed in the play. Sutcliffe added the cool factor to the band and dubbed them “the Beatles.”
Focusing on the early days in Hamburg, we don’t get much of a taste of their music beyond Paul and John fiddling with the beginnings of Love Me Do. What we do get is a struggling band playing in nightclubs, discovering themselves and their future. The young painter Sutcliffe later abandons the group for art and the love of Astrid Kirchherr, the photographer who took some famous moody shots of the band and originally styled their mop-headed, collarless look.
The stage play overall is slow, the story moving along with very little punch. The band’s performance of cover songs is what adds panache to the overall experience. But the audience is engaged, every fan mapping out the story and the historical accuracy. The first act takes a detailed look at the band’s start in Liverpool and the move toHamburg. This is where the emotional connections are made and we see the fab 5 develop.
It’s the second act in these musical histories that seem to falter. In the remaining minutes we see Sutcliffe die at the age of 21 from a brain haemorrhage. Pete Best is asked to leave the group for Ringo Star, just as the Beatles were on the brink of success and they record their first album – a much compressed timeline. Similarly to Rock of Ages and We Will Rock You, the show ends with the fab 5 performing while cast members shimmy along the isles alongside dancing audience members – this was really cool and something I truly enjoy in the newer productions. You always walk away having fun.
The Royal Alex is the perfect venue for this production as the old charm works well with the depicted era. And the actors do a great job at being the Beatles, their character acting as strong as their voices. Would I recommend it? Yes, especially if you are a fan as it’s a great account of how the band got off to their start. If you’re not a fan of their music, you can see a well-acted play that doesn’t really have a lot of Beatles music in it.
Backbeat is on stage at the Royal Alex Theatre until September 2nd or as long as Mirvish extends it. For tickets visit www.mirvish.com
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