Let it Be.
God Only Knows They Should Have Done. Do not go and see this “musical”. It will only make you angry.
It shouldn’t be difficult to make a musical about The Beatles. Making a successful one certainly isn’t – after all this one seems to be doing fairly well, despite the fact that it is basically an insult to all but the most undiscerning Fab Four fan out there. But making a good one shouldn’t be that difficult either.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of material to work with, musical or otherwise. Perhaps I should open with a confession first of all – I’m not really that into The Beatles. I’ve always been more of a Stones fan, and have never really got the all consuming obsession that some people develop – with either band. Plus, the more oompah side of things just mystifies me. ‘Ob-La-Di’ is a terrible song, and cutesiness like ‘When I’m 64’ just wants to make me stab Paul McCartney with a fork.
But, like any rational being, there are a huge number of Beatles songs that I do like, even love, and I was looking forward to seeing them woven together into some sort of narrative/stage spectacular. I wasn’t expecting a revealing account of tensions between Lennon and McCartney, or a scene depicting exactly what it was like when Yoko starting sitting in on recording sessions, but I was expecting something, a little glimpse of the spirit of an age perhaps, or of rock’n’roll history in the making.
The problem with Let it Be in a nutshell is – it’s not a musical. There is music, for sure, and pretty much every song you would expect to be covered is played, by a group of young men who bear a passing resemblance to the original lot, and who are highly proficient with their instruments. But there is not one word of dialogue or script, outside of the odd “adlib” to the crowd, not even the pretense of a narrative, and nothing that reveals anything whatsoever of the history of the band or the era they did so much to define.
From the start, the stage is set up as if this were a gig, and apart from a few costume changes and a bit of window dressing, that’s your lot. Just song after song. At first you don’t notice too much, the sheer energy of the early singles keeps you going, and anyway, you think, that’s what it was all about in 1962 wasn’t it? Just the sheer excitement?
Unfortunately, the novelty is already wearing off when you get to the Shea Stadium, and by the time you’re into the apocryphal performances of Sgt Pepper’s and so on it all starts to feel a bit surreal. Which is not helped by John Lennon’s hair at this point, which looks like it’s been stolen from a ventriloquist’s dummy. The thing that makes this all the more frustrating is to realise how easy it would be to make it better.
There’s the obvious option – make an actual musical, rather than just palming off something that takes the whole idea of the “jukebox musical” to a new low – but even barring that, there’s a million things that could be done. The stage is flanked by two 50s style TV sets, but they’re barely used beyond some amusing TV adverts in the interval. If, for whatever reason, you can’t put together an actual story, then why not put these to better use?
After all, this is one of the most quotable, and quoted bands in history, and there’s so much footage out there that could have been spliced in to add some sort of depth, even if it was just quips about being bigger than Jesus, or Ringo not even being the best drummer in the band. Why not give us some of the music that was around at the time and made the Beatles feel like such a seismic shift? Why not give us some idea of just how exciting this must have felt?
Much is made of the Shea stadium gig, but nothing is mentioned about the fact that the Beatles stopped performing live in 1966, or why. Perhaps project a 60s audience full of screaming, fainting, balcony-jumping teens onto the back of the stage, with the band drowned out by the tsunami of noise, and for a moment, give us all a sense of what it was like when the crowd was so loud that the music was incidental.
Perhaps close the first half with a band broken by incessant touring and recording, desperate for some respite, and change the second half stage set into the interior of a studio, giving us some insight into the experimental ways they started making music. Bring in an orchestra, show us some film sets, give us a trip to India, a moment of George Harrison discovering the sitar, or Lennon and McCartney increasingly pulling in different directions. Give us anything, but not this weird puppet performance that feels like its had all its soul surgically removed.
It should not be possible to make ‘Blackbird’ seem flat, it should not be possible to make a Sgt Peppers set look more like a Slade Christmas special, and it should not be necessary to tell the crowd when they need to stand up and dance along. But it is here, and I guarantee, if you do make the mistake of entering this show, you will know exactly what song is going to end the encore by about half way through.
If you like the Beatles, and you want to spend an evening listening to a good live performance of their music, go and see Rubber Soul, or the Silver Beatles, or any of the other tribute acts out there, and you’ll see something with more passion, and for about a fifth of the price. But don’t go and see this. It really isn’t worth it.
At the Prince of Wales Theatre, PicadillyLet it Be, London