For half a lifetime I have dreamt of a play in which the drama emerged from music being played live. Backbeat achieves precisely this by giving over at least half its running time to re-creations of The Beatles’ early residencies in a number of unprepossessing (to say the least) Hamburg clubs. In its way, the music is the drama. Much of it, as played here, is rough as a dog’s backside, which is the entire point, and missed just as entirely by those who condemn these performances for being raucous and unpolished. What we hear – and which is in some ways much harder to do – is the progression, the development from journeyman rock’n’roll renditions to the first budding of what became the Beatles sound. The bulk of the numbers are R&R standards; the only Lennon/McCartney composition heard even in part is during a scene in which Lennon knocks the sentimental edges off McCartney’s draft of “Love Me Do”.
Arguably, the play – like Iain Softley’s 1994 film, which he and Stephen Jeffreys have adapted for the stage – is only indirectly about The Beatles anyway. Its protagonist is Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s bassist during their Hamburg stints, who left the band in order to resume his studies and work as a painter and who died in 1962 of a brain aneurysm. Nick Blood’s Stu protests that his art and his music are complementary rather than conflicting, but we see the two principally embodied in a love triangle between Sutcliffe, photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas) and Andrew Knott’s needling, jealous Lennon. This Lennon may or may not harbour sexual feelings for Sutcliffe, but he is certainly intensely homosocial, behaving like a possessive, and then spurned, lover.
David Leveaux’s production keeps the music centre-stage, literally: the area on which the band play is trucked up and downstage, but somehow remains the focus even when obscured by a screen for other scenes or photo or video projections. This is not a subtle, layered or complex piece; what it is is mature, vital and organic in a way that Million Dollar Quartet just up the road misses for all its energy. In the music, as played here, we can hear our own relationship with it, and with the world as a whole, as we developed through adolescence and young adulthood.