How to say something new about the Beatles legend?
In 1974 Willy Russell fantasised about a reunion with the delightfully quirky John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert; Backbeat (2011) focused on the band’s early years in Hamburg, while not 500 yards from where this show is playing Let It Be churns out the hits for tourists in an unimaginative production that one critic rightly described as “a tribute band at West End prices”.
But as we’re told in what is a largely unnecessary prologue, if you’ve come along expecting this play to be another evening of back-to-back classics, you’re going to be disappointed.
Instead of focussing on the boys in the band, writer Andrew Sherlock’s riveting two-hander, directed with subtlety and feeling by Jen Heyes, takes as its centre the group’s enigmatic manager in a fictionalised account of his final hours before an accidental overdose of sleeping pills claimed his life at the ridiculously young age of 32.
Brian arrives back at his Belgravia apartment with a young man from Liverpool, known only as This Boy, in tow, who he has just met in bar — Epstein was gay and is known to have had a taste for the casual pick up. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be just another fleeting sexual encounter, certainly not on the part of the young scouser anyway. This Boy has travelled south with the express intention of meeting Brian. So as the night grows long, the booze flows, pills are popped and secrets revealed.
This is a beautifully crafted play with two wonderfully layered performances. Newcomer Will Finalson as This Boy is the edgy streetwise kid who’s reduced to a child on Christmas morning when offered George, “or possibly John’s” guitar to play. But it’s Andrew Lancel, who not only bears a striking resemblance to Epstein, but also gives a finely nuanced portrayal of this complex man — one minute the suave and debonair mogul about town, the next, insecure and needy.
For Beatles anoraks like myself, the landmarks of the group’s history are there to be ticked off as they’re told, but Sherlock’s script is so much more than a regurgitating of the known facts. It really gets inside what made Epstein the man he was and even manages to thrown in one or two dissonant chords about the received wisdom of the band/manager relationship. Sherlock is clearly a Beatles anorak with five stars on the shoulder.
On the night I went the theatre was probably less than a third full, which is a terrible shame because this is an intelligent and poignant story exceptionally well told.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
Epstein is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre until 6 September 2014. Click here for tickets.