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LONDON — The seemingly insatiable demand for Beatles nostalgia has already inspired countless musicals, exhibitions and cabaret-style tribute shows from Liverpool to London to Las Vegas. But this low-key stage drama approaches the subject with more intelligence and nuance than most, probing the complex soul of legendary pop manager Brian Epstein, who became a global superstar by discovering the Fab Four, only to be destroyed by his own brittle and tormented nature.
Epstein: The Man Who Made the Beatles comes to its limited London run after premiering in Liverpool in 2012 at a refurbished theater named after its subject. Despite a careful opening disclaimer that this is a fictionalized speculation — “nothing is real and nothing to get hung about” — what follows is a conventional, respectful two-hander that adds little new to the ever-growing mountain of Beatles-themed bio-dramas. That said, writer Andrew Sherlock‘s play balances admirably serious intent with obvious appeal for the huge market of fans and tourists who keep the lucrative Beatlemania industry alive.
The single-set location is Epstein’s chic bachelor pad in newly swinging London in the summer of 1967. Returning home with a strapping young Liverpool lad (Will Finlason) who caught his eye in a local bar, the famously gay manager (Andrew Lancel) clearly has sexual intentions. But his visitor, who simply calls himself This Boy (one of several allusions to Beatles lyrics scattered throughout the text) has another agenda. He first claims to be a budding reporter hoping to write Epstein’s biography. Later, when the conversation turns from prickly to violent, he hints that he’s gathering dirt for a sleazy tabloid exposé.
This setup seems to promise a sexually charged battle of wits between the young visitor and his pill-popping, masochistic, highly strung host. But the action soon settles down into a fairly straight skip through Epstein’s life story, from bullied schoolboy to failed actor to internationally famous impresario. For all his veiled intentions, This Boy quickly proves to be more starry-eyed fan than stalker. And despite his repeated protests that his chief interest is in the real Brian, not the Beatles, the story veers off constantly into familiar Fab Four anecdotes. Playing to the gallery, of course, but arguably unavoidable.
Finlason is well cast, boasting the kind of clean-cut good looks that smartly echo the British film and music stars of the early 1960s: the likes of Terence Stamp, Billy Fury or Tom Courtenay. Though not a Liverpool native, he handles the accent convincingly, and does his best to breathe depth into a character almost entirely composed of working-class Merseyside cliches (alcoholic father, passionate soccer fan, obsessive Beatles disciple, short of temper but full of poetry). Of course, This Boy is clearly an emblematic everyman, but also the kind of crudely drawn proletarian stereotype not seen in British drama for decades. Well, not outside of Ken Loach movies anyway.
Most of the dramatic complexity falls to Liverpool-born Lancel, who has a long track record of roles on British TV soaps like The Bill and Coronation Street. Lancel is a fairly good physical match for Epstein, radiating a nervy body language that conveys both his debonair, moneyed surface confidence and his vulnerable, wounded interior. With its sparing use of back projection and flashback, the play evokes a lifetime scarred by rejection, addiction and self-loathing, all compounded by the routine homophobia and anti-Semitism of post-war Britain.
Epstein was co-commissioned by the Liverpool-based LGBT festival Homotopia. Sherlock and director Jen Heyes could have made more of this angle, which has greater currency in our era of marriage equality and gay rights activism. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in Britain in 1967, shortly before Epstein’s fatal sleeping pill overdose, which was officially ruled an accident. Before that, gay men were routinely victims of blackmail and assault. Boldly, the play partially blames the Beatles for Epstein’s terminal decline, marginalizing and mocking him as their own fame grew. The play includes one of John Lennon’s notoriously barbed quips: “baby you’re a rich fag Jew.”
Actual Beatles songs feature only fleetingly in Epstein — presumably the rights were too expensive — but Lennon and Paul McCartney are ever-present in the form of recurring lyrical quotes and well-worn episodes from the band’s biography, sometimes dropped clumsily into the dialogue in semi-digested chunks. In places, Sherlock risks committing the same offense that his play seems outwardly designed to remedy, making Epstein a minor character in his own life story.
A solid effort, but low on narrative or stylistic innovation, Epstein is ultimately an old-fashioned exercise in talk-heavy theater. It throws little fresh light on its subject, but it does succeed in invoking empathy for a sensitive young man crushed by his own success at the cruelly young age of 32. This play has two acts. Fate only granted Epstein one.
Cast: Andrew Lancel, Will Finlason
Playwright: Andrew Sherlock
Director: Jen Heyes
Set & costume designers: Amanda Stoodley, Katie Scott
Lighting designer: Phil Saunders
Sound designer: Adam Sloan, SAE Institute
Projections: Anthony Swords
Presented by Bill Elms, Jen Heyes Productions
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