“Backbeat” Gives the Back Story to the Birth of the Beatles

Backbeat, a new musical at the Duke Of York Theatre on London’s West End, is the story of the Beatles experiences in Hamburg, leading up to their signing by George Martin. The production was directed by David Leveaux and written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, based on Softley’s screenplay for the 1994 movie of the same name. It opened on October 10, 2011 at the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London.

This jukebox musical/biography hybrid stars Andrew Knott, Daniel Healy and Will Payne as John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, respectively, with Nick Blood as the band’s ill-fated original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe. Though the story is framed around the Beatles formative experiences in Hamburg, Germany , the stars of the plot are Stu and his German girlfriend, photographer Astrid Kirchherr (played with an alluring sweetness by Ruta Gedmintas).

The strength in the production lies in the music, though if one goes expecting familiar Beatles hits, it will be a disappointment. The only Lennon-McCartney song featured is Love Me Do, which is used to wonderful effect during a songwriting session. Rather, the show uses a selection of blues songs that the Beatles covered during their Hamburg days, such as Rock N Roll Music, Long Tall Sally and Please Mr. Postman. The presence of this songs, done mostly in bits and pieces throughout the show, enables the episodic elements of the story to move more fluidly. Without them, the story arc might have fallen into a rut. With them, the events have a more natural flow.

The real story of the evening revolves around the romance of Stu and Astrid. Anyone who knows their Beatles history is aware of the fate of these star-crossed lovers, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The performances might have more reverence for the characters than usual, but that may owe to the fact that many of the people involved in this tale are still living (as are their lawyers). We don’t know Stu well enough to know if Blood’s performance is spot on or not, but whoever Stu Sutcliffe was, Blood has us believing that Stu was on the stage. Even more remarkable are the actors playing the eventual Beatles. The characters are very familiar to anyone with a vague knowledge of pop culture. The casting directors of this show did an amazing job of finding performers who could act, play the instruments, sing and convince us that they were John, Paul, George and Ringo. Though few would have noticed, James Wallace captures the essence of Beatles’ producer George Martin so well, you know who he is from the first word he utters.

One note about the show: There is a great deal of smoking on stage. If this bothers you, you might want to make sure you are at least 20 rows back. Though this is accurate for the era, it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable.

It’s hard to say if this performance will appeal to lukewarm Beatles fans or even those who don’t care for the music. I spent the early part of the day at Abbey Road , crossing the street without my shoes on, so I am not qualified to judge. That being said, it’s a good story with fine acting, a rockin’ soundtrack and a mini-concert to close the night. which gives the ticket buyer a bit of bang for their buck.

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