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Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Did Backbeat Rock the Critics?

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Backbeat, an adaptation of Iain Softley's 1994 film on the birth of The Beatles, opened last night (10 October 2011, previews from 24 September) at the Duke of York's Theatre, marking its West End premiere.

Backbeat chronicles the band's beginnings when Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best left Liverpool for Hamburg, searching for their big break.

Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) falls in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas), creating a struggle within the band and testing his friendship with Lennon (Andrew Knott).

Also featuring Daniel Healy, William Payne, and Oliver Bennett, Backbeat continues at the Duke of York's until 24 March 2012.

Don't miss our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Backbeat on 18 October, including a FREE drink and an EXCLUSIVE post show Q&A with the cast and creative team – all for just £32.50!

Michael Coveney

"In Softley’s own adaptation with Stephen Jeffreys, Andrew Knott’s jeering, sneering Lennon yields centre stage to the tragic, tortured figure of Nick Blood’s terrific Stuart Sutcliffe ... The narrative weaves artfully through the hardest, meanest rock ‘n’ roll I’ve ever heard on a West End stage ... The show’s like a painting itself, conjuring not only Stu’s manic splurges in the style of Jackson Pollock, but the grimy underworld of Hamburg on the Reeperbahn ... This use of projections is the weak spot in an otherwise brilliant design by Christopher Oram and Andrew D Edwards ... Daniel Healey sketches in Paul McCartney’s flip intelligence very nicely, and Will Payne is suitably blank, onstage and off, as George Harrison. This isn’t just another jukebox musical, nor is it another brain-dead tribute show. It’s a beautifully wrought and darkly cynical evocation of an era, and a particular place, as the Beatles found their inimitable voice through the grit and virility of the pounding music they loved still to play even as their own more lyrical, musically complex compositions poured forth over the next decade. For once, you really do feel like dancing in the aisles at the end."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"...This show largely left me bored and depressed. David Leveaux’s production is irritatingly arty and largely fails to capture the rackety atmosphere of the sleazy Hamburg clubs ... It doesn’t help that the actors playing the young Beatles look almost nothing like the originals. If you half close your eyes and the lights hit him at the right angle, Daniel Healy might just pass for McCartney but otherwise the actors strike me as marginally less convincing than the notoriously inept waxworks of the young Beatles at Madame Tussaud’s ... the acting company performs them live with zest, and there are decent performances from Nick Blood as the troubled, ailing Sutcliffe and Andrew Knott as the aggressive yet vulnerable Lennon. But the script by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys creaks with clichés and I left the theatre fervently wishing I’d stayed at home with my Beatles records and my memories."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Director David Leveaux gives the thing plenty of flourish ... The music is strong, not least in volume. It is not wall-to-wall Beatles hits but simply the sort of songs the band played in the early days in a German roughhouse. That brothelly joint is fairly well suggested, not least by the amount of smoking that takes place on stage. Those sitting in the front of the stalls should prepare to passive-smoke a good packet or more of pongy herbal fags. Horrid! The worst thing about tribute shows is their lack of originality. Backbeat avoids that trap. I actually found myself rather taken by the thing, even if the docu-drama nature of musicals about great bands feels overdone. The Stuart Sutcliffe suggested here is given a choice between playing in a band or marrying a beautiful girl and studying art. The decision he took was a noble one."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Never mind that none of the actors are lookalikes (pointless: their originals are burned on our retinas). Not soundalikes either: Andrew Knott’s Lennon sounds at times more like Lily Savage, and musically we never get near that irresistible blend of Lennon’s sarky heaviness and McCartney’s romantic lightness ... the show can’t decide whether to be a play about real people in transition, or a cheesy jukebox musical ... but this ... falls between two stools like a Reeperbahn drunk. These relationships are sketched, but rather than explored are constantly interrupted by full-length renderings of the hackneyed rock covers the Beatles did before songwriting talent flowered. An unconvincingly small ensemble of jerking groupies and drunks takes the foreground, plus an excruciating comedy German MC. You feel that you are meant to scream and stamp, but nobody did."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"Let's get one thing clear: this is far from another lazy compilation musical to clog up the weakening arteries of the West End. For a start it has been written with care and finesse rather than lumped together. The transition to the stage works slickly ... the feel of a low-life Reeperbahn nightclub is easily conveyed and the songs - mostly covers rather than original numbers - seem natural. The actors playing Paul, George and Ringo aren't going to trouble any Beatles look-alike competitions, but they can certainly knock out a chord and bang a drum ... Blood can't muster the easy charisma that Dorff oozed in the film but Knott ... makes fine work of Lennon's chippy loyalty. Director David Leveaux captures the fizzing energy of this brink-of-change era ... there are intriguing nods to themes that would develop as Beatlemania took over the world ... Backbeat is a back-story to cherish."

- Natalie Generalovich

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