Based on the 1994 film of the same name, this is the story of the early days of 'The Beatles', arguably the most famous of all popular bands, or groups as they were more commonly known as in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
David Leveaux's production is impressively slick and pacey, with an edgy sparseness that is evocative of the times and reflects the raw energy of the young band. Much of the play focuses on the relationship between John Lennon and the fifth member of the group, Stuart Sutcliffe who Lennon initially introduces to the bass guitar by getting him to play in the simplest keys to enable him to avoid any fingering. With Sutcliffe shoehorned into the group, the action moves from Liverpool to Hamburg where the band are required to play endless sets and sleep behind the screen of a local cinema. To meet the requirements of playing all-night sets, Sutcliffe resorts to using 'slimming pills' recommended by a waitress. While playing in the club in Hamburg, he also falls for photographer Astrid Kirchherr, and before long is resuming his career as an artist and quitting the band, leaving Paul McCartney to take on the bass role in the group. And we see the first glimmers of the monumental success which was to follow during the rest of the 1960s, as George Martin signs the band and the first recordings are cut. For Sutcliffe, though, the ending was to be terminally and sadly abrupt.
Smoke and smoking are both integral to this play. Most of the characters smoke incessantly, and there is enough smoke effect used to evoke the pea-soupers that frequently invaded many urban parts of the UK at the time. Christopher Oram and Andrew D. Edwards' design is nonetheless rich in its simplicity. A sliding stage moves back and forth for the musical numbers when the band are performing and projections prove highly effective in creating the appropriate atmosphere.
In terms of character development, director David Leveaux seems to have opted for impressionistic interpretations rather than detailed mimicry or absolute impersonations - we recognise enough familiar traits in the characters, without being subjected to forced replicas. That certainly worked for me, because this is a story and drama which needs to function on its own level, and largely it does. Andrew Knott's Lennon is the outspoken, abrasive and somewhat combative member of the group, who also seems the natural and obvious leader. Daniel Healey's spirited McCartney has the enthusiasm for music and boy-next-door looks, and Nick Blood invests Stuart Sutcliffe with an almost mystical quality, torn between love, friendship and his art. Though the main characters are well-developed, the minor roles are less convincing, especially in the club scenes.
It is hard to determine given the passing of so much time, just what the truth is about the relationships this play exposes. Apparently George Harrison walked out of a screening of the original film after just 5 minutes, and Sir Paul McCartney was critical of the film's portrayal of him in particular. Though it is a highly watchable and generally well-crafted production, I am not sure what it reveals that is new about the complex relationships within the group, even if we do learn rather more about Stuart Sutcliffe.
"This show largely left me bored and depressed."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Intelligent, multilayered and often touching."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"Dynamic blast of a production."
Paul Taylor for The Independent