Ah, the Beatles! Eight glorious years of recording hit after hit, all of it long lasting, top quality, innovative, memorable music. They were at the right place at the right time, with a worldwide appeal, amazing creativity and the ability to excel at an extraordinary range of styles. As Mrs Chrisparkle and I often reflect, no one else we can think of can create an album which might contain rock, ballad, pop, lullaby, 1920s pastiche, or orchestral sounds – and with lyrics that might be inward looking, soul-searching and spiritual, or full of imaginary, lively characters, with their own stories to tell. As a very small child I was hooked. The first record I can actually remember the process of buying was “I Feel Fine”. The first film I ever saw at the cinema was “A Hard Day’s Night”. The word “Beatles” was the first long word I could spell – and I wrote it everywhere. Any spare scrap of paper, books, walls, curtains, furniture…. I spared nothing from the indelible “Beatles” mark. My parents must have been so proud.
If you’re expecting a musical based on Beatles songs which depicts the progression of the group’s career, then you might be a tad disappointed. Lady Duncansby and her butler William saw the show on its first night in Northampton and, expecting to see a Beatles version of Jersey Boys, felt a little cheated. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But basically this is a staged Beatles concert, set at different times chronologically advancing through the group’s oeuvre. We see them in the Cavern, raw and enthusiastic, in the Please Please Me era. They’re at the Royal Variety Performance doing She Loves You and Twist and Shout. We’re transported to the Shea Stadium for Can’t Buy Me Love and Ticket to Ride. They appear as Sgt Pepper’s band; in the “Our World” TV studio; and at Abbey Road. All in all, the cast play 42 Beatles songs over a good two and a half hours.
What makes this different from, say, going to see a tribute act like The Bootleg Beatles? Good question. Primarily, it’s the production values. This is a superbly presented show and technically a masterpiece in many ways. What bowled me over right from the start was the extraordinary accuracy of the re-enaction of the original arrangements. The four gifted musicians (together with additional instruments courtesy of the very talented Steve Geere in the performance we saw) recreate the richness and excitement of those guitar performances and the brash confidence of the drums and percussion. Later on, the reflective beauty of the piano work in Let it Be and Hey Jude feels like magic. Every nuance you can remember from playing your old Beatles records you will hear on that stage. It’s an incredible achievement.
There’s also fantastic scenic, lighting, sound and video design which incorporates live action from the stage and mixes it with contemporary film footage; supremely effective in the Shea Stadium scene, where you really felt like you were there. Jack Galloway’s costumes are 100% faithful to the various stages of the group’s career, with the early 60s sharp suits, the Shea Stadium safari jackets, the Pepper outfits, and the Indian-influenced hippy garb. And of course four tremendous performances. Unusually, the cast changed at least once during the course of the week. We saw a different cast from the night Lady D attended – and I discovered that, on the Friday, our cast were doing the Late Late Show on RTE in Dublin, so presumably the first cast was back on stage.
I was really happy that we got to see one of my favourite performers, James Fox, playing Paul McCartney. I’ve been a fan ever since he did Eurovision for the UK in 2004, and indeed Mrs C and I helped do a radio interview with him on a stairwell in Jury’s Inn at the Eurovision convention in Birmingham five years ago. But more than that, he was superb on stage when we saw him in Jesus Christ Superstar and Chess; and now, in Let it Be, he continues to have a fantastic stage presence as well as great vocals and guitar skills. Our John Lennon was Michael Gagliano, who really captured John’s cheekiness and love for entertaining. John Brosnan was a superbly taciturn George, just quietly getting on with his job of providing lead guitar, occasionally coming forward to sing – most memorably in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, so pleased that they found space for that one. Ben Cullingworth was our Ringo, showing great mastery of the drums and chipping in with typical Ringo spark through the course of the evening.
It would, of course, be impossible for them to play all the Beatles hits, but I was a little disappointed at a couple of sins of omission – most particularly I had hoped for Lady Madonna, and Hello Goodbye would also have added to the general happiness of the evening. There’s no Paperback Writer or Yellow Submarine; no She’s Leaving Home or Ballad of John and Yoko. Lady D was unhappy with the accents – despite her posh title she’s a scouser at heart – and, as I touched on earlier, there’s no attempt to tell the story of the Beatles. You don’t get a sense of the breakdown in the relationships – John and Paul are as happy together in the final scenes as they are at the beginning. Having said that, there’s no lack of drama, because the songs themselves are of such high quality that each one brings with it its own sense of drama. The urban effervescence of Penny Lane, the life-assertion In My Life, the quiet tragedy of Eleanor Rigby, the weird one night stand of Norwegian Wood, inter alia, all capture your attention and remind you of what a sensational legacy the Fab Four left behind.
Personally, I really loved the show, and felt I could easily see it again the next night. With that attention to detail, the engaging performances and the wonderful songs – who could ask for more? After a few more weeks’ touring, the show is returning – again – to the West End, keeping the spirit of Beatlemania alive. If you like the Beatles – and especially if you never saw them – here’s your chance.
The production photographs are by Paul Coltas and are from letitbelondon.com