Long before the Fab Four came to provide their own soundtrack to the 60s, they were the Fractious Five, playing pop cover songs in Hamburg dives, with tensions fuelled between John Lennon and original bass player Stuart Sutcliffe by the latter’s romancing of a German photographer Astrid Kirchherr and Sutcliffe’s own conflicting ambitions to be a painter instead of a pop star. The Beatles line-up also included Pete Best on drums, before he was sacked and replaced by Ringo Starr.
Backbeat, based on the 1994 film of the same name that tells this back story of the Beatles, is a jukebox show without the commercial pull of their back catalogue, apart from their first original single Love Me Do. But the world has had plenty of that already, from West End shows like Beatlemania and the ghastly All You Need is Love at the Queen’s Theatre in 2001, to the most ravishing of all Cirque du Soleil’s Vegas shows, Love.
Instead, Backbeat is forced to make far bolder choices, and the genuine surprise of it is how nuanced and compelling the story it tells is, brilliantly threaded through with rousing pop classics. It’s the loudest show in town and also the smokiest – the boys are never seen without cigarettes dangling from their lips – but it’s also the most interesting pop show since Jersey Boys. It likewise not only captures the pulse of what drives its protagonists to make music, it is also even more interestingly about their personalities.
The central duo of Lennon and Sutcliffe are played with a respectively edgy and cool appeal by Andrew Knott and Nick Blood, with Ruta Gedmintas as the alluring image maker, in every sense, who comes between them. David Leveaux’s galvanising production keeps the narrative as well as the songs in constant motion that is, in the end, full of emotion, too.