‘Backbeat’ at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Fashioned around the telling of a footnote to the early story of The Beatles, Backbeat  contains more story than most of the rival ‘jukebox musicals’ currently on in the West End, but not enough story to feel like a fully realised play.

Set mainly in that mythical time before the Beatles were the Beatles, but were a covers band playing in a dive in the red light district in Hamburg, the story focuses on the relationship between John Lennon and his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who despite not being able to play the bass properly was co-opted into the band largely on the basis of his ‘coolness’.

In Hamburg, Sutcliffe begins a relationship with Astrid Kirchher and has to choose between the band and his career as a painter on the one hand and his friendship with Lennon and his love affair with Astrid on the other.  Interesting themes then, about what it is to live as an artist, the decisions that have to be made, the people who want to be associated with such a person because of their ‘aura’ and the vicarious sharing of that glow; so it was a bit frustrating to have them dealt with so superficially.

Instead the show presents small scenes about the pain, comedy and anarchy of young lads taking their first steps into the wider world, with interludes of loudly amplified hits from the late 50s and very early 60s like Please Mr Postman.  The look of it is super cool, echoing the atmospheric black and white photos Kirchher took of the Group, and the styling of them that she allegedly suggested, but, culminating as it does with Sutcliffe’s very early death, there’s a downbeat quality to the show.

There is an energy and a charm about the music, but it’s not really the main purpose of the piece, and for me it was a bit anachronistic and too plentiful.  Whatever the original band sounded like in its Hamburg dive, it didn’t benefit from a loud West End theatre sound system; and for me, the now apparently compulsory playing of as many songs after the curtain call as during the show, is growing a bit thin.  I’d like to watch the show, applaud the performers and then go home; the twenty minute ‘encore’ is definitely de trop.

The best summary I can give is to paraphrase the conversation I had with my friend as we were leaving the theatre.  It was quite sweet, thank goodness it had more story to it than so many other similar shows, Lennon was an unpleasant character, and its a pity there weren’t more Beatles songs.

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  1. “Whatever the original band sounded like in its Hamburg dive”


    Unbelievably rough. Not quite as terrible as the Sex Pistols in their early years, but similar. All power chords and fuzz. Mind you, the competition wasn’t up to much, either. Kirtschner’s influence may have had a lot to do with, aside from the times and some decent tunes.

    It _was_ a step up from skiffle bands, and you must bear in mind the post war poverty of the times. Today, kids have unbelievable access to musical instruments at home. Getting keyboards, decent guitars and amps back then was incredibly tough.

    “apparently compulsory playing of as many songs after the curtain call as during the show, is growing a bit thin.”

    Away with encores of any nature. Finish the show, up with the lights and BE DONE!

    “Lennon was an unpleasant character”

    Something that seems to be impossible to say in company these days. The feeling of the public seems to be that because he wrote, “Imagine,” he must have been an okay guy. I’m sure Lennon had his complexities, as do we all, but there’s a dichotomy between the lyrics of, “Imagine,” and keeping one room in yer hotel condominium to freezer temperatures for the correct storage of your collection of furs.


    • It was partly the ‘big production’ sound system that irritated me about the music in the show. It’s what we expect now, a sort of rose tinted twinkly representation of something that would look and sound pretty naff if given the production values of the time.

  2. Jill Goldberg

     /  January 28, 2012

    Oh. I guess I’ve been too much of an uncritical Lennon fan over the years. I really don’t like the story about the furs. I watched the film Nowhere Boy a couple of weeks ago. That was a very different young Lennon portrayed growing up there.

    • I’m a Lennon agnostic; I’ve only seen bits of Nowhere Boy, but did see the BBC Lennon Naked which painted a fairly self obsessed not particularly likeable character too. Truth is probably a bit of both.


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