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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Backbeat theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Theatre is ill-equipped to ­represent other art forms. It can cope with ­portraying a brilliant painter, but ­struggles to show off a brilliant ­painting. It can convince us that a play's ­characters are in a top pop group, but risks shattering the ­illusion the moment they start strumming their guitars.

That is why it is bold for writer and director Iain ­Softley to bring his 1994 movie to the stage. Not only is ­Backbeat about the early days of the Beatles in the seedy clubs of Hamburg where they honed their sound from rough-and-ready skiffle to world-conquering rock'n'roll, but it is also about original bassist Stuart ­Sutcliffe, who traded stardom for art school before his death in 1962, aged 21. For the show to have a chance of working, Softley has to ­convince us of the lost genius of ­Sutcliffe the painter, as well as the primitive potential of a band that would redefine popular music.

Softley does an impressive job on both counts. The walls of industrial sheet metal on Christopher Oram's set create a gritty monochrome ­atmosphere, as well as serving as a screen for Timothy Bird's dynamic projections. When Alex Robertson's Sutcliffe is at work in his studio, we get a real feel for the intensity of his abstract painting: great splashes of blood-red paint appear behind him, a technique grimly repeated when he finally ­collapses from a brain haemorrhage.

Sutcliffe and his bandmates kick up an equally credible musical racket, all jangly guitars and chirpy harmonies, as they storm their way through Johnny B. Goode, Please Mr Postman and other period standards. For a show trying hard not to be seen as just another jukebox musical, Backbeat gives a convincing impression of the raw sound of early-60s rock'n'roll, even if Andrew Knott's vocals can't match the abrasiveness of the young John Lennon.

The transition from screen to stage is not entirely successful, however. Unlike the film, the play sometimes seems to be ticking off the key moments in the real-life story, when it could be ­delving deeper into the love triangle at its heart. It would take more exploration of the relationship between Sutcliffe and ­Lennon for us to understand the ­psychological tension caused by the appearance of German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe). The result is that Sutcliffe's death comes across more as dry historical fact than emotional turning point, and that in turn makes the band's show-closing medley seem less celebratory than ­chillingly indifferent.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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