Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Theatre review: Epstein – The Man Who Made The Beatles

After premiering in - of course - Liverpool, Andrew Sherlock's Epstein - The Man Who Made The Beatles comes to Leicester Square Theatre to tell the story of the band's first manager on the last night of his life. The opening statement that this isn't a play about the Beatles is given the lie by the title, but Sherlock suggests that's as much to do with Brian Epstein himself being unable to give up his affection for them, as it is with everyone he meets wanting to talk about his most famous clients. Used to being an outsider having grown up rich, Jewish and gay in Liverpool, when we meet Epstein (Andrew Lancel) in August 1967, he's made a habit of bringing rough trade back to his flat, the possibility of them robbing and beating him all part of the attraction. On this night he's picked up a pretty-boy Scouser known only as This Boy (Will Finlason) in a club.

But neither sex nor violence is on the cards as This Boy turns out to be a budding music journalist who thinks all the official accounts of Epstein's life have been dry and distant, and that managing to get the real story out of him will make for a career-making article.

Epstein - The Man Who Made The Beatles is a very uneven play, bookmarked by monologues from This Boy that clumsily set out the playwright's purpose in looking at the manager's life and death (there were always rumours that Epstein committed suicide, but Sherlock ends up on the side of the coroner's report that called it an accidental overdose.) The play's biggest problem is that it hasn't quite found a convincing excuse for these two characters to chat all night. Epstein very quickly realises This Boy's come to his place under false pretenses but doesn't kick him out - although I guess I can understand that if you got someone who looks like Will Finlason into your flat you'd keep him around for a while, maybe get him to try on some outfits (Finlason keeps his y-fronts on, although he did look in danger of popping out of them at one point.)

This Boy is really the problem here, and Finlason proves himself a promising new talent by being able to give him something approaching a personality. But the writer keeps tripping this up with lines of the "what a time it must have been!" variety serving as a blunt reminder that he's just an onstage representative of the writer and the audience, displaying a nostalgia that comes much more from 2014 than 1967 (the justification for this is that he feels he's just missed out on Liverpool's heyday, getting old enough to be allowed into clubs just as there's nobody worth seeing playing in them,) and changing from fanboyish joy at meeting the man who saw the Beatles' potential, to digging into Epstein's failings as a manager, to give the piece balance.

What makes up for the play's clumsiness is that it has actually found an interesting subject and an interesting angle on him, and the fact that Lancel and Finlason share good onstage chemistry. Epstein's story of his time with the Beatles has a doomed optimism that their relationship will continue, even as it becomes obvious they're trying to cut him loose; it's mirrored in Lancel's body language towards Finlason, Epstein's longing for This Boy seeing him still reach out for him even though it's clear he's not there for sex. The play's flaws often drag you out of the moment, but the actors' performances always manage to draw you back in.

Epstein - The Man Who Made The Beatles by Andrew Sherlock is booking until the 6th of September at Leicester Square Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

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