Backbeat: Beatles History is really the Stu Sutcliffe Story
- Written by Mary Alderson
Backbeat – The Birth of the Beatles
Book by Iain Softley & Stephen Jeffreys, based on film
Directed by David Leveaux
Musical direction by Paul Stacey, associate director Jason Lawson.
Performed by Nick Blood, Oliver Bennett, Isabella Calthorpe, Daniel Healy, Andrew Knott, Daniel Westwick et al.
Mirvish Productions – Glasgow Citizens Theatre
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
August 2 to September 2, 2012
First off, this production has a misleading name. The marquee says Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles. Not so. It’s the Stu Sutcliffe Story. But I suppose if they called it that, no one would come since most people don’t know who Stu Sutcliffe was. Having “The Beatles” in the name will attract a crowd.
But don’t come expecting to hear all Beatles’ music. This is the story of Stu Sutcliffe, John Lennon’s best friend, who was a reluctant Beatle before they were famous. So the music is mostly songs written by other artists that they covered in their early days.
The production of Backbeat now on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto has arrived there from Glasgow Citizen Theatre by way of the Duke of York Theatre in London’s West End. The musical is based on a little-known 1994 movie by the same name.
Dedicated Beatle fans will know Sutcliffe as the 5th Beatle; he was the band’s original bass player. Backbeat tells about his friendship with Lennon and how they came up with the name The Beatles. The story drags along, dwelling on Sutcliffe’s art and his German girlfriend, Astrid, leading up to his untimely death. Then the plot moves to a hasty conclusion as the Beatles become famous without him.
With the narrow plotline, much of the dialogue seems contrived and awkward. The programme contains a Beatles timeline with several tidbits of interesting trivia, but unfortunately many of these remarkable details are not brought to light in the plot. We all know that Paul McCartney is left-handed, but did you know that when Sutcliffe left the band, McCartney had to take over bass duties and played Sutcliffe’s guitar upside down? Unfortunately, the actor playing Paul was right handed and this information was not brought out on stage. The program also says that Astrid convinced the Beatles to change to the mop-top hair style, but on stage Astrid only does Stu’s hair. Later the rest just show up with the new hair style.
The story is dark and bleak creating an ill mood that belies the energetic, lively rock ‘n’ roll interspersed throughout the show. The plot and music just don’t work together. We wanted to enjoy the music, but we were pulled back down into the depressing story.
There are also concerns about the actors. Having a British cast should make the show more authentic, but unfortunately some of the characters had such broad accents, it was difficult to understand them. Adding to the problem was their inability to maintain German accents when they were playing characters from Hamburg. Astrid sounded more Scottish than German.
The actor playing Stu Sutcliffe portrays the innate “coolness” very well, but unfortunately doesn’t have a strong voice. I’m still not sure if he just isn’t a melodic singer, or we saw him on an evening when he had voice issues, or maybe they were going for realism and Sutcliffe really wasn’t a strong singer. In any case, he seems to struggle with his solo number.
While all the actors depicting the Beatles played their own instruments, their talent was limited; it sounded more like a dingy Hamburg night club, rather than a musical theatre show. Again, maybe that is the sound they wanted to portray, but then they shouldn’t be charging full musical theatre ticket prices. They did not have the talent seen recently in the touring production of Million Dollar Quartet, where the audience was wowed by the cast playing and singing the music.
Backbeat could have and should have offered more. It is not in the same league with Jersey Boys or Million Dollar Quartet – both of which are a more entertaining blend of history and music.
Backbeat continues with eight shows a week at Royal Alexandra Theatre until September 2. Call Ticket King 416-872-1212 or or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.
A member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, Mary Alderson reviews shows at area theatres and posts blogs at www.entertainthisthought.com .