Posts Tagged ‘The Beatles’

When you go to the revival of a play that once shocked, you usually wonder why. What shocked in the past rarely shocks as much as time passes. Not in this case. John Lahr’s virtually verbatim 1986 play based on Joe Orton’s diaries, which Lahr had only just edited and published, displays behaviour and attitudes, like under-age sex, we find completely unacceptable in 2002.

I was familiar with the 1987 film and 2009 stage play based on Lahr’s 1987 biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, the former adapted by Alan Bennett and the latter by Simon Bent, but I didn’t even know this earlier stage work based on the diaries themselves existed. It apparently started as a 45 minute NT early evening ‘platform’ performance, was almost immediately expanded into a complete play at the Kings Head Theatre and then transferred to the suitably seedy Boulevard Theatre, but hasn’t been seen in London in the 36 years since.

Orton was a working class boy from Leicester who got into RADA in 1951, even more of an achievement then than now given his background. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he had a complicated relationship. Sixteen years later Halliwell murdered him, then took his own life. They lived in Halliwell’s Islington bedsit the whole of that time, even after Orton had made significant money. Halliwell was a source of ideas for his work, his partner and lover, but Orton was never faithful and Halliwell often felt confused and rejected by him.

Joe’s short playwriting career is based on just two full evening stage plays produced in his lifetime – Educating Mr Sloane & Loot, works which combined irreverence, cynicism and absurdity to great comic effect, a highly original voice. There were other pieces, produced and un-produced, including radio and TV plays, a few one-act plays and a screenplay for The Beatles, and another major play, What the Butler Saw, produced posthumously.

This is a real insight into Orton and Halliwell, perhaps the first example of verbatim theatre, though only one voice. Nico Rao Pimpare’s production zips along but has much depth, packing a lot into less than two hours playing time. George Kemp captures the cheeky irreverent charm of Orton whilst Toby Osmond conveys the emotional complexity of Halliwell, both excellent. There are forty-six other characters, including agent Peggy Ramsey, Kenneth’s Williams & Cranham, Paul McCartney & Brian Epstein, their neighbours and Orton’s relatives, all played by just four actors – Jemma Churchill, Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal – in a dazzling display of quick-fire role switching.

A very welcome revival that proves to be a fascinating evening.

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Let It Be

I feel sorry for all those Beatles tribute bands, slogging around the UK and internationally to make a living. Some smart arse West End producer with American Canadian German and Korean partners, scours the land for those with the resemblance and the musicianship to pull it off (a number of whom were in said tribute bands), gets a big budget to up the production values and advertise heavily, sets a top ticket price of £60 (£90 for ‘premium seats’), puts on 8 performances a week (a capacity of 9200 pw, 478,400 pa) and cleans up!

Lets be clear, this is a concert not a musical. We get c.40 songs in 8 sets in chronological order from The Cavern to The Royal Variety Show to The Ed Sullivan Show to Shea Stadium to Sgt. Pepper to Magical Mystery Tour to Abbey Road to the Apple office rooftop. During costume, wig and scene changes (and to add or remove facial hair) we get period news and advertising accompanied by music of the period by others. After Shea Stadium , the costumes and sets (and facial hair) get more elaborate – as they did. The musical quality is outstanding and the attention to detail extraordinary – from guitar licks to intonation to expressions.

There are two casts of five (a costume-less fifth Beatle joins on keyboards from Sgt. Pepper onwards) and a full set of understudies; I suspect this may be the reason why, after 4 months in the West End (though only three days at the Savoy Theatre) it is still very fresh. The theatre was packed, with a huge portion of tourists and a surprising age range, such is the enduring appeal of the Fab Four. They don’t take much encouragement to dance, clap, sing along and scream! The staff have given up trying to stop photos and recordings; with a lady in the 6th row videoing almost the entire show (until her finger started aching, I think!).

Whether you’ll like this will depend on three things:

1. How much you love the greatest body of work in popular music

2. How prepared you are to accept the concept of tribute / impersonation

3. How tolerant you are of 1000 people intent on having fun at all costs

Me? Well I was 10 when Love Me Do was released and 18 when they disbanded, so tick the first one, obviously. 2 came when I went to The Counterfeit Stones a few months after the real ones and they were better! 3 was more of a challenge, but last night I eventually let go and it won me over.

It’s clearly London’s newest tourist attraction and  frankly I’d rather they went home with memories of this than Madam Tussauds or The Mousetrap.

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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.

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