Tribute shows are tricky things to get right. In many respects, it’s Stanislavski versus Brecht: do you try to become the real people you are celebrating, living and breathing their very being in order to respond instinctively and truthfully in a way they might have done in new and different circumstances – or do you try to create an unnaturalistic, heightened image of them, consciously and crowd-pleasingly emphasising their well-known character traits that a more subtle, realistic portrayal might not? Let It Be – a high-energy international touring celebration of The Beatles, which concludes its UK tour this week in Norwich – elects to do both of these approaches to great, but not total, success.
Let’s start with the positives: the most praiseworthy aspect of the show is without doubt the total musical accuracy. Considering there are just five guys performing on stage the whole time – Richard Jordan (John Lennon), Emanuele Angeletti (Paul McCartney), John Brosnan (George Harrison) and Ben Cullingworth (Ringo Starr) playing as The Beatles in the traditional three guitar (lead, rhythm, bass), piano and drums set up, plus Michael Bramwell adding a whole host of additional instrumentation via a 21st century keyboard (effectively becoming George Martin) – they manage to perform flawless versions of countless Beatles tracks from across their entire back catalogue, and beyond. Genuinely, the music they produce is impossibly close to the original studio recordings, performed live, which is something not even The Beatles did themselves for many of the songs.
The show’s structure is also to be commended: rather than two hours of a selection of the Beatles hits – which would have been perfectly acceptable – instead, the show takes you on a journey, through a potted history of the Beatles, before projecting out into the imaginary world of ‘what if…’
Act I consists of four sections, reflecting the various ‘eras’ of The Beatles’ music, with appropriate choice of costumes, wigs, lighting and set dressing, introduced by 60s-stylised video screens displaying genuine Beatles TV footage to set the period. We begin with a re-enactment of the Fab Four’s appearance at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance, including hits such as “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, as well as Paul’s famous Opportunity Knocks moment (“Yesterday”) and Lennon’s cheeky request for help (“Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry…”). It’s the details such as these that will delight any Beatles fans; anyone not in their 70s will experience memories they’ve always wanted to have.
But that’s just the beginning. The Beatles’ subsequent global dominance of pop music is then demonstrated by mini-version of their 1965 Shea Stadium concert in America, supported by video clips of young girls at the event out of their minds, screaming, as the band struggle to hear themselves play “Help”, “Twist and Shout” and “Day Tripper”. With a little effort in the ‘suspension-of-disbelief’ department – essentially, if you can ignore the fact that you are in a theatre in Norwich for a minute – it’s the next best thing to being there.
From here, we move into more fictional territory, which is where we stay for the rest of the evening, as the band go on to adopt full Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia to perform selections from their 1966/67 studio-only period – including the album’s title track and its immediate follow-up “With A Little Help From My Friends”, along with impressive renditions of the psychedelic “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day In The Life” – before summarising the 1968-1970 White Album / Let It Be / Abbey Road period with “Come Together” and “Get Back”, appropriately closing with “The End”. None of these tracks were ever performed in concert by The Beatles, making Let It Be very special, albeit acceptably artificial.
Act II offers something even more interesting. It takes the idea of recreating historical stage shows one stage further, by recreating an imaginary reunion gig set in 1980, on what was John Lennon’s 40th birthday. The set opens with the band performing a selection of their solo hits together: for example, “Jet”, “Band On The Run” and “Live And Let Die” for Paul; “Starting Over”, “Watching The Wheels” and “Imagine” for John; “It Don’t Come Easy” for Ringo; and “My Sweet Lord” and “Got My Mind Set On You” for George. I could be mean here, and question why at a supposed “reunion gig” in 1980, they would play a James Ray hit from 1962 that George wouldn’t have a hit with for another seven years. Indeed, how you feel about this whole section depends how much you buy into the “reunion gig” idea, which Jordan as Lennon has a slightly annoying habit of reminding you about. When The Beatles split up in 1970, they went in totally different musical directions, each emphasising their own unique voice and authority as an artist – so, to me, supposedly coming together after years apart to play their solo material just doesn’t sit right somehow. John Lennon performing lead vocals on “Imagine” while Paul McCartney plays the famous piano melody is, in my opinion, just not right.
Maybe I’m taking it all too seriously, but the later half of Act II, where the solo material is replaced by “proper” Beatles records for the final tracks of the evening – including knockout versions of “Back In The USSR”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Let It Be” (of course) and a medley of the rock and roll classics that opened their career, concluding with an audience-focussed singalong in “Hey Jude” – it’s only then that the show once again becomes a celebration of the Beatles, rather than an awkward meeting of the band’s individual members, where you half-expect to see a pseudo-Yoko Ono come on and spoil everyone’s fun.
Which brings me back to Stanislavski versus Brecht: Now, it must be said, Emanuele Angeletti as Paul McCartney is astonishing. Not only does he display Macca’s musical performance prowess, he has his singing and speaking voice, looks, mannerisms and movements down exactly. It’s utterly spooky, and he could easily have a smash hit Paul McCartney show, even if it included the Frog Chorus.
John Brosnan also clearly has George Harrison’s singing voice and guitar talent, although sadly he doesn’t have Hazza’s soft scouse speaking voice, somewhat breaking the illusion from time to time. Ben Cullingworth, meanwhile, has Ringo Starr’s personality, but – like Mr Starkey himself – is very much overshadowed by the others simply due to focus being primarily elsewhere, with occasional – very enjoyable – exceptions. I’m pretty certain the show could have squeezed in “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden” to give him more to do!
Unfortunately, Richard Jordan’s John Lennon didn’t work for me at all. An unsubtle caricature of a complex, much beloved individual, Jordan came over like exaggerated cartoon parody – a singing Jon Culshaw in a wig. Don’t get me wrong, he sung well – but he wasn’t Lennon. But then, who is?
And there’s the thing. Is it all too much? Admittedly, Let It Be is a celebration of the Beatles, rather than a recreation of them – but occasionally, it tips the balance from pastiche into almost well-meaning parody. But only occasionally.
Let It Be is being performed at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday 22nd June at 7.30pm, with matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday 19th June and Saturday 22nd June.