Beatles’ Seedy Debut, Miss Vanessa, Lesbian Love: London Stage

The company of ``Backbeat’’ at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. Original Beatles guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe’s relationship with John Lennon is the core of the show. Photographer: Nobby Clarke/Target Live PR via Bloomberg

The past has a way of snapping at your heels. Just as Paul McCartney settles down to enjoy his third marriage, the musical “Backbeat” looks at his early years in the red-light dives of Hamburg.

The London show is about the time when a group of wannabe rockabillies called the Beatles covered songs like “Please Mr. Postman” and “Twist and Shout” during a residency in Germany in the early 1960s. They were paid peanuts, and had to bed down dormitory-style behind the screen at a nearby cinema.

In one amusingly sordid scene, George Harrison (Will Payne) complains that the loss of his virginity is not only witnessed by the rest of the group. It’s cheered on, too. John Lennon (Andrew Knott) and Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) grab quickie knee-tremblers during breaks in performances. Pretty it ain’t. Authentically seedy it is.

The simple scaffolding set and some murky lighting strike just the right low-rent note.

Based on Iain Softley’s 1994 film of the same name, “Backbeat” avoids many of the pitfalls of jukebox musicals. The numbers are drawn mostly from covers the group sang during their early gigs, and not from their original material. The current cast, good as they are, don’t suffer by comparison with the Fab Four’s most famous recordings.

In the central edgy dynamic among McCartney, Lennon and Sutcliffe, the show has a lot to offer emotionally.

Bossy John

When Sutcliffe first appears, he’s a promising art student with as much musical ability as a damp sponge. His adoring bossyboots friend Lennon persuades him to learn bass guitar, and join the group for the fun of it. Sutcliffe’s future ambivalence about being in the Beatles, his growing relationship with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas), and his need to break free from Lennon’s domineering presence form the dramatic core of the show.

It’s a complex and intriguing story, and well handled by the performers. The problem with the piece lies with David Leveaux’s direction, which sacrifices the developing drama for manufactured feel-good highs.

After the ruthless sacking of drummer Pete Best and the sudden death of Sutcliffe due to a brain aneurysm, an upbeat ending with a compilation of cheerful hits (including Blood performing as Sutcliffe: hey, didn’t he just die?) feels like a slap in the face. It’s untrue to the story.

The time is right for a great feel-good show. A truly cathartic piece about the pains of artistic creation could do well too. Trouble is, you can’t have it both ways. Rating: **.

Daisy’s Chauffeur

There’s no question mark over the tone of Alfred Uhry’s play “Driving Miss Daisy.” It’s sentiment covered in sugar covered in candy floss.

Nothing wrong with that, at least it’s consistent.

Set in Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s, it portrays the growing friendship between cantankerous Jewish matriarch Daisy Werthan (Vanessa Redgrave) and her black driver Hoke Coleburn (James Earl Jones).

It’s certainly politically correct: Dissolving of racial prejudices, tick. Developing mutual assistance, tick. Dignity oozing from every pore of the black character, tick.

It’s a mark of Jones’s theatrical greatness that he sparks with life as Hoke. He knows when to play out to the audience and milk a joke. He knows how to place a well-timed grin. He finds a core of something real under the spun-sugar.

Redgrave doesn’t pull off the same trick. When she attempts a big crowd-pleasing gesture by comically waving a soup can at Hoke after suspecting him of having stolen it, it looks contrived and overdone. That said, as Daisy ages from her 70s to her 90s, Redgrave’s biomechanics are terrifically well observed. You can almost hear the sound of her sinews drying and her tendons shriveling.

There are better plays about black-white relations. There aren’t any with the unmissable James Earl Jones in them. Rating: ***.

Sister George

There aren’t many plays without male characters, either, so it’s a pleasure to see the 1965 all-female “The Killing of Sister George” by Frank Marcus back in the West End.

It tells the bleakly comical story of June Buckridge, an actress who plays a beloved district nurse in a BBC radio soap opera. When the nurse, Sister George, is killed off in the series, her relationship with her young lover Alice goes into a tailspin. June’s nemesis at the BBC, Mrs. Mercy Croft, then senses that she may be able to steal away Alice.

There’s amusing business about the fakery of soap operas, and about actors who identify too strongly with their roles. It also squeezes plenty of gags from June’s masculine manner and Alice’s little-girl behavior, even if the butch-femme lesbian stereotype marks the play as a period piece.

Elizabeth Cadwallader combines sweetness and manipulativeness as Alice, and Belinda Lang is amusingly crisp and bossy as Mrs. Croft. Meera Syal (June) doesn’t come close to finding either the humor or pathos in the exuberant, comical and jealous June. It’s a shame, because the work isn’t strong enough to survive a weak lead performance. Rating: **.

“Backbeat” is at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Information: or +44-844-871-7627. “Driving Miss Daisy” is at Wyndham’s Theatre, or +44-844-482-5136. “The Killing of Sister George” is at the Arts Theatre, or +44-20-7907-7092.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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