The latest screen-to-stage adaptation, it seems amazing it took this long for Iain Softley's 1994 film Backbeat to end up in a theatre, so good a fit is it. Nick Blood plays Stuart Sutcliffe, the original Fifth Beatle (a title later claimed by so many people, there must have been more Fifth Beatles than there were Actual Beatles.) John Lennon (Andrew "Spare History Boy" Knott) first brings him into the band as bass player not because he's any good (after some coaching he can just about manage one chord) but because he knows the art student's effortless cool will help give them an irresistible image. Most of the action takes place in Hamburg where the Beatles played for several months in 1960 as a house band playing covers of rock'n'roll songs. This is where Sutcliffe met Astrid Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas) who encouraged him to go back to his painting, and this conflict between his lover and his best friend is the central focus of the show. The other three band members, Paul (Daniel Healy,) George (very cute Will Payne) and original drummer Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) get occasional bits of subplot but they really are supporting characters in the story. Where they really matter is in the musical numbers, of which there are many, all excitingly performed, and the kind of story being told means they feel perfectly integrated into the show. Though technically a jukebox musical, it doesn't feel like one.
Though of course it'll attract Beatles fans it features very few of their songs (perhaps one of the reasons it doesn't feel like a jukebox show) because this is very much the Origin story; we do see the beginnings of John and Paul putting together the song that will become "Love Me Do" but it's more of an ironic aside. Sutcliffe's short life is what's celebrated here and Blood does a good job bringing him back to life. I saw the film when it first came out so I may be imagining that the stage version is a bit kinder to the Beatles than the film was; Lennon seems less of an arsehole here, McCartney less of a whiny bitch. The harshest moment is in the firing of Best, where not only does Brian Epstein (Mark Hammersley) have to do the dirty work but it's implied the other three were disappointed in his drumming all along, and never said anything to his face. And a quick mention for the design; though at times making for clunky scene changes, I liked Christopher Oram and Andrew D. Edwards' seedy set, especially the dimly-lit tunnels going nowhere. Backbeat may not be anything new but what it does it does very well. For fans of jukebox musicals it's got to be a must-see, and even for people who don't normally like them I'd say it's worth a look.
Backbeat by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, based on the screenplay by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward is booking until the 24th of March at the Duke of York's Theatre.