Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Backbeat" - March 2010

Despite anything you read to the contrary, "Backbeat" is not about the Beatles. Set mainly in Hamburg, and pre-Beatlemania, it is about the relationships between John Lennon (Andrew Knott), reluctant bandmember and promising artist Stuart Sutcliffe (Alex Robertson), and Stuart's German girlfriend Astrid (Isabella Calthorpe). Everything else is pretty much incidental.

Adapted from the film of the same name, "Backbeat" is a large scale production with clear ambitions for a life beyond this run in Glasgow. And while it certainly deserves to have one there's still a fair bit of room for tweaking. Much of the banter amongst the band just isn't sharp or funny enough and the selection of tracks played by the band could be improved.

There is a huge amount of energy and vibrancy on the stage, but somehow in that two foot gap before the front row of the stalls it dissipates almost entirely for much of the show. Despite the powerful delivery of the band and having the dancers mere inches away, the audience remained very obviously static - with barely a foot tapping or head nodding in time to the beat. I suspect this may vary on a daily basis, but on the Thursday night I attended it didn't bring the audience to life until the show was all but concluded.

Of course, the other factor acting to restrain the audience is the knowledge of the fates in store for these young lads. But what also didn't appear to help was the decision to play an applause/crowd track through the theatre speakers at the end of each number by the band. Rather than adding to the atmosphere this seemed to me to have the opposite effect and in fact discouraged the live audience from adding their own applause.

To be fair, it's a very fine line to tread as 'pumping up' the audience would risk lessening the impact of the quieter scenes that form the emotional core of the show. And these are so beautifully performed by Calthorpe, Robertson and Knott that it would be unforgivable to allow them to be overpowered. While the music may not have elicited much of a response, the final scenes between Stuart and Astrid certainly did - provoking audible sobs.

It's fitting given Sutcliffe's passion for art that the show is as much about its visual style as its musical one. Writer/Director Iain Softley captures the essence of coolness, and makes one of the best uses of video elements I've seen on a stage.

The final band medley where the audience are encouraged/allowed to cut loose feels a bit of a cheat to provide a much needed upbeat ending. And it raises a serious question mark over whether it is possible to make a 'feel good' show when so many of the endings are unhappy ones.

I've struggled to get a handle on this show and my response to it, but I think I've finally got it. I saw two great shows last Thursday night - one an upbeat tale of a hungry young band on the verge of worldwide fame, and the other a tragic tale of love won and lost. I did enjoy the evening but I'm left feeling that the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts.

Backbeat is a co-production between the Citizens Theatre and Karl Sydow and has now completed its run at the Citizens.
Image by Richard Campbell used with permission