When you watch X-Factor on the weekend, remember there was once a time when pop groups learned their craft by hard slog and trial & error. The Beatles would never have been the greatest band the world has ever seen if they hadn’t spent the best part of two years playing lengthy sets in the Cavern in Liverpool and in much seedier clubs in Hamburg.
What Backbeat does by focusing on this brief but intense and important period is show us how it all began. The fact that it uses young actors who have recently learnt, and are still learning, to sing and play gives it an authenticity which brings the story alive. It’s not a musical; it’s a play – but the musical sequences are crucial and become increasingly competent and exciting as the story develops. They’d sound a lot better played by professional musicians, but that would miss the point and be a lot less true to the story. I loved the rawness and raggedness of the music because it felt so real.
In this period, of course, original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe looms large. Lennon’s art school mate who can’t play a note but is super-cool joins the band, falls for photographer Astrid Kirchherr & steals her from fellow artist Klaus Voorman, leaves the band for Hamburg Art School (under Edward Paolozzi no less – even this Beatles obsessive didn’t know that!) and dies tragically. Paul switches to bass and Pete Best is dumped for Ringo and the rest is history. When they put on Astrid’s jackets and strike the first chords of Love Me Do, there was a shiver up my spine and a tear in my eye. This is where the musical soundtrack of my life really began.
It really does tell the story well. Comparisons with Jersey Boys are unfair - this is not a biographical retrospective on a spectacular scale with a band’s entire back catalogue; it’s a play focusing in more depth on a short formative period. Both are great, but completely different.
They actors don’t impersonate the fab four (five) but they brilliantly convey the essence if the people. Andrew Knott has Lennon’s attitude, power and influence and Daniel Healy’s McCartney is the more serious, and seriously ambitious, musician (with spot-on nodding!). Will Payne captures the much younger George, quietly in awe of the others, growing up before your eyes. There’s less pressure on Oliver Bennett as Pete Best and Nick Blood as Sutcliffe as we know less of their characters, but they’re both excellent. Adam Sopp’s Ringo only arrives in the final scene, but his inimitable grin made me smile.
There isn’t a moment wasted in David Leveaux’s staging and the design team of Christopher Oram, Andrew D Edwards, Howard Harrison, David Holmes, Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn have created an environment which allows a fluid flow from scene to scene and location to location.
I loved this show, and I don’t think that’s entirely because of how much The Beatles meant to me. It’s a great story well told. They don’t even get to use that extraordinary back catalogue - we never get beyond Love Me Do – yet you can hear the beginnings of that sound that has not been equalled in the fifty years that have passed since. Give X-Factor a miss and find out how real talent develops.