Beatlemania Limps Back Into Town

Photo: Paul Coltas.

Photo: Paul Coltas.

The Beatles are back, or so claimed the Union Jack-clad tour bus on Charing Cross Road last night. After closing at Prince of Wales Theatre in January 2013 following a string of less-than-favourable reviews, the Beatles-themed musical Let It Be has reopened at Garrick Theatre.

We join the Fab Four during a pub gig in Liverpool, before world domination. The set for the opening scene is very well done, drawing the audience into the railway arches — it’s actually like being at an intimate show. Three songs in and little interaction with the audience, however, we were beginning to feel like we’d stumbled across a Beatles tribute act. There was no narrative and scant dialogue between the characters, which it transpired was a constant throughout the show. And therein lies the problem with Let It Be.

With big band musicals such as Mamma Mia and the recently closed We Will Rock You holding such a presence in the West End, audiences will expect more from Let It Be than simply an uninspired trawl through The Beatles’ back catalogue. A narrative to tie the hits together perhaps, no matter how tedious the link. But the show is a rendition of one Beatles song after another — well-orchestrated, we’re not denying that — but with minimal interaction between the four not-Beatles on stage.

With lack of dialogue comes lack of depth, so predictably, there’s no chemistry between the group. The biggest laugh of the evening came courtesy of a Prell shampoo commercial from the 1960s, bizarrely interspersed between a couple of songs, with the aim of recreating the media whirlwind of the group’s rise to fame. The TV sets, placed liberally throughout the auditorium, continue to play through the performance, showing unnecessary Beatles-themed animations and fake archive footage, which serves only to distract the audience from the lifeless happenings on stage. Whether the distraction is a nuisance or welcome is up for debate.

Despite the lack of narrative, a working knowledge of The Beatles’ finer moments is required to enjoy the show fully, including a young not-John-Lennon’s wistful hope that he might write a half decent song one day, and a reference to Lennon’s infamous line, “Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery”.

As the first act comes to a close, the tactic of forced participation is employed, when not-Ringo-Starr (in character, we think) insisted that they won’t go on until the whole audience is on its feet with hands in the air. Cue self-conscious, wooden dancing from the whole crowd, save the man three seats down from us, who danced and sung with such vigour and emotion that we’re pretty sure he thought he was seeing the actual Beatles. We weren’t going to be the ones to burst that bubble.

Not-John-Lennon appeared to be having earpiece problems during the second act, but despite that and a couple of other minor technical difficulties, the staging was admirable. The setting changed around the drum set, from the Liverpool boozer, to a flower power backdrop, via a black and white Hollywood themed set (which, had our Gran been sitting next to us, would have caused her to remark that they could have at least ironed the drapes before hanging them out on a West End stage). Yes, it’s a journey through the Beatles’ story, but not an obvious or well-explained one. The lighting, however, is faultless, and our favourite effect by far was the trippy backdrop to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

The accents of the performers were variable, a linguistic dart thrown into a map of the North of England every ten minutes or so, sometimes landing a perfect Liverpudlian vowel, at other times replicating the Arctic Monkeys. And though we don’t normally prioritise appearance when reviewing theatre, when we’re dealing with subjects as widely photographed as the Fab Four, it’s hard not to. At one point we had Howard from The Big Bang Theory, Norman Wisdom and a modern day Mick Jagger lined up on the front of the stage, whilst not-Ringo Starr was stuck behind his drum kit and barely got a look in.

We reviewed Let It Be when it opened at Prince of Wales Theatre in 2012, and we have to say, the most recent performance is little improvement. The only discernible difference is that the audience was even less enthused in the second act this time around. Again, forced participation happened on some song or other (we forget which now) but as soon as that number was over, bums were placed resolutely back on seats. Even the encore was drawn out — by the third return to stage, people were exiting. We just wanted Hey Jude.

A Magical Mystery Tour this is not, and it may have been better if the theatre company had taken the Fab Four’s back catalogue and Let It Be. That said, All You Need Is a narrative thrown in for the characters to Come Together on stage and have the audience dancing Here, There and Everywhere. Otherwise, it’s A Long and Winding Road to curtain down. (Really, you didn’t think you were going to get through this without a few lyric puns thrown in, did you?)

If it’s a Beatles tribute band you’re after, then this will be right up your street, as musically, the performance is great quality, particularly the rendition of Here Comes the Sun, which could almost have passed for being performed by the Fab Four themselves. But London audiences have been spoiled by musical theatre shows, and Let It Be just doesn’t live up to the competition.

Let It Be is on at Garrick Theatre on Charing Cross Road. Tickets start from £15. Londonist saw the performance on a complimentary ticket.

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