There have been more than enough West End musicals about sixties pop stars so this play about the pioneering producer and songwriter Joe Meek is a refreshingly alternative take on the showbiz scene of that decade. Nick Moran and James Hicks' bio-drama, directed by Paul Jepson, charts the dramatic rise and even more dramatic fall of the brilliant but flawed Meek in a cocktail of gay sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
The first independent record producer, Meek had a string of hits in the early sixties, including the transatlantic number one, The Tornadoes' instrumental “Telstar”. Using his background as a sound engineer, he was famous for improvising new sounds in his recording studio at his flat above a handbag shop at 304 Holloway Road in north London (lovingly re-created in Tim Shortall's dingy and cluttered set).
But as his style of music was superseded by the Merseybeat groups and others, his financial and sexual problems accumulated and he ended up shooting dead his landlady, then himself, in 1967. There are distinct echoes (excuse the pun) of Phil Spector, but also of Joe Orton, as the violent underbelly of the swinging sixties is exposed.
Moran and Hicks start the play just after the deaths, then rewind back to 1961, and move forward year by year to try and explain the tragic denouement. Within this conventional structure, the largely humorous Act One shows Meek's meteoric success while Act Two progressively darkens in a downward spiral.
However, even early on there are hints that the mercurial Meek could implode at any time. Eventually, the pressures of debts, lawsuits, amphetamine addiction and, above all, his unrequited love for Heinz – the untalented singer he tries to make a teen idol – all combine to destroy his delicate mental balance.
As Meek, Con O'Neill's campness may seem exaggerated at first, but the intensity of his performance wins through in a devastating portrayal of a larger-than-life figure who always lives on the edge, whose creativity gives way to destructive tendencies as paranoia takes over.
The other parts are rather tangential, but Linda Robson plays his landlady, the unfortunate Mrs Shenton, with a good deal of warmth, while Joseph Morgan is the shallow Heinz.
No doubt relishing the West End limelight, Joe himself is sure to be rock'n'rolling in his grave.
- Neil Dowden
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from February 2005 and this producton's earlier tour.
Nasty thing, the music business. It makes - and it breaks. Careers. Reputations. Hearts. Lives. Things. People. Telstar is the story of 1960s record producer Joe Meek who, from a small flat above a handbag shop in north London's Holloway Road, helped launch some of the seminal sounds of the pop music explosion.
If you know about the life and death of another Sixties maverick, the playwright Joe Orton, you will catch resonances in the story dramatised by actors Nick Moran and James Hicks. Meek found himself caught in a cruel spotlight, the sort which picks out every physical and psychological flaw. The end was - and is - inevitable.
Con O'Neill gives a magnificent performance as Meek, with all the contradictions of the man, born Robert, set out for us like a flayed victim presented to execution witnesses. O'Neill dominates, building up from a low-key, almost throwaway characterisation to a full-blown portrait of frustration which alternatively excites pity, annoyance, understanding and fearful incomprehension. There are moments when you can't bear to watch his agonies; equally, you can't look away. But that's neither sadism nor masochism. Just pure theatre.
The other characters lack this all-roundedness. There's Gareth Corke as the uptight song-writer Geoff Goddard, Adam Rickitt as blonde pretty-boy Heinz, with whom Meek is infatuated but who is never going to make the grade either as a performer or even as a person. Roland Manookian plays Patrick, the much-put-upon dogsbody, while Linda Robson is rather wasted on landlady Mrs Shenton.
Paul Jepson's direction is not quite taut enough to cover those places in the script where the weight of words and people exchanging arcane insults seems to be holding back the plot. Tim Shortall's set and costumes evoke place and period very well. This was an era when even rebels wore white shirts, neatly knotted ties and well-polished shoes.
- Anne Morley-Priestman