Backbeat The Birth of the Beatles

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Submitted by Don Graham

Sometimes you know a show is going to rock from it’s opening seconds and that’s what happens with 'Backbeat - The Birth of the Beatles' at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto this week. Superbly directed by David Leveaux, the pounding of the bass drum and tom toms of the opening set the tone for the sounds of the show. This ain’t gonna be your grandma’s tea party!

This is the story of how a bunch of lads from Liverpool, then a five piece group, would become the Beatles, the most influential musical group in history. The Quarrymen / Silver Beatles of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe are at the heart of this tale of the hardscrabble days in Hamburg. This is where the lads turned their rough and ready skiffle sound into the highly polished rock ‘n’ roll band that rocked the world.

The play starts with John giving Stuart a bass guitar that he’d picked up for 50 quid, so Stuart could join The Quarrymen. Stuart explains that he can’t play it but John convinces him "he can learn.”

"It only has four strings, not six like a guitar!” Sutcliffe agrees and the journey begins as the quintet head out for Hamburg, Germany.

Isabella Calthorpe Photo: Cylla von TiedemannIsabella Calthorpe Photo: Cylla von TiedemannThe sets for the Indra Club in Hamburg were sparse, dark and smoky but create the mood for the evening brilliantly and the area of Hamburg,  famous for prostitutes, transvestites and homosexuals was well portrayed. The Beatles were raw and unpolished which the cast pulled off and were adversarial with the crowd. The Germans found the name Beatles humourous as it sounded like peedles , a german word meaning small boy’s penis. This reference got some hearty laughs from the audience.

It was at the Indra Club that Klauss Voorman introduced Astrid Kirchherr played by Isabella Calthorpe, to the boys and the romance between Sutcliffe and Astrid blossomed. This relationship caused a rift between Sutcliffe and Lennon as Lennon was no longer the focus of Sutcliffe's attention. The unspoken subplot of a “relationship” between Lennon and Sutclffe is accentuated at this point. It was assumed by some that the relationship between the two extended far beyond band mates but it isn’t addressed overtly in the stage play.

Nick Blood,Andrew Knot Photo: Nobby ClarkNick Blood, Andrew Knot Photo: Nobby ClarkAndrew Knott is a believable John Lennon capturing the cheek and irreverence of the young teddy boy but showing the vulnerable side as well. He also did a great job singing and playing in true Lennon fashion. The brooding Stuart Sutcliffe, played superbly by Nick Blood, travels the range of emotions necessary for the role with ease and confidence. The part of Paul McCartney is played in great fashion by Daniel Healy. Healy is a superb musician and singer while he nailed the MacCartney mannerisms. Likewise George Harrison, the shy Beatle, played by Dan Westwick. Pete Best was not as well known publicly so comparisons were more difficult but Oliver Bennett is a fine actor and portrayed him well.

Daniel Healy, Dan Westwick, Nick Blood and Andrew Knott Photo: Cylla von TiedemanDaniel Healy, Dan Westwick, Nick Blood and Andrew Knott Photo: Cylla von TiedemanThe Beatles leave the Indra club for the Kaiserkeller and the disgruntled owner of the Indra reports them to immigration and they are deported because George is underage. Plus the fact that Best and McCartney were charged with arson for setting a condom on fire in their living quarters earned them deportation papers. Once George turns 18 the band returns to Germany and take up residency at the Top Ten Club. Sutcliffe leaves the band and McCartney takes over the bass playing duties, Best is replaced by Ringo Starr and The Beatles are born.

Sutcliffe and Kircherr get engaged but Sutcliffe, after suffering blinding headaches and seizures, dies of a brain aneuryism. And the rest, of course, is well documented history.

The play ends with a rousing mini concert of Beatle songs that had the entire audience on their feet and singing along to every word, ooh  and every head bob.

Backbeat - The Birth of the Beatles will take you to the toppermost of the poppermost! Well done lads, well done!

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Editor’s Note: This is a must-see for Beatlemaniacs and music fans alike. It is a rare glimpse into understanding where it all started.

Daniel Healy, Dan Westwick, Nick Blood and Andrew Knott Photo: Cylla von TiedemanDaniel Healy, Dan Westwick, Nick Blood and Andrew Knott Photo: Cylla von Tiedeman