Friday, March 13, 2015

'Let It Be' at the Garrick Theatre, 11th March 2015

First things first: there is a bedrock of quality that Let It Be cannot sink below. Purely by dint of playing extremely close facsimiles of Beatles songs this is a broadly entertaining way to spend an hour or two. Bring me the mug who'd scowl at A Day In The Life, Back in the USSR and Norwegian Wood and I'll show you a self-serious stuck-up son of a bitch who needs taking down a peg or two. 

The Beatles have been a part of my life almost as long as oxygen has. As the years tick by their songs accumulate more and more meaning; lyrics and musical twists attaching, barnacle-like, to my memories and experiences. In summary, I like The Beatles. So I figured Let It Be was going to be a sure fire success - sit in a theatre, watch some sound-a-likes work their way through the catalogue and do a bit of singing. How can that go wrong? Well...

Let It Be lands in a weird hinterland between concert and musical. Essentially a simulated gig, an extremely loose narrative charts the band's rise from stygian Liverpudlian sweatbox, through shrieking, oestrogen fuelled stadiums and into concept album psychedelia. With the cast busy playing their instruments live and 'improvising' with each other during songs, the story is told in via stentorian voiceover and video footage that gives a bullet points overview of the 1960s (Vietnam, Hippies, Moon Landing etc).

In the first act song after song ticks by in roughly chronological order. That progression is largely abandoned in the second act, probably because no-one wants to watch four angry men smoking endless cigarettes and gradually growing to despise one another. The show then goes 'full jukebox', reaching into the almost bottomless pit of Beatles classics and giving us a series of the most crowdpleasing of crowdpleasing hits.

On paper this would be a recipe for a dead fun night. In practice its weirdly sterile; every moment predictable, every choice the absolute safest one. This is, I guess, understandable enough. After all, Let It Be is a West End extravaganza with both eyes greedily on the wallets of tourists keen to fit as much 'British' into their visit as possible. And after cake at some doily-filled tearoom, a selfie outside Buckingham Palace and some over-priced fish and chips in Leicester Square, what better way to cap off the day than settling down to sing along to  The Beatles songs everybody knows and loves?

I don't want to look down on tourists too much, I've done similar routines myself abroad. Even so, this is a shrink-wrapped, plastic of Britishness that gently warps the music of The Beatles into a display of patriotism. It's hardly new to use The Beatles as a quick encapsulation of British-ness, but even so, the sight of not-Ringo waving a gigantic Union Jack rankles, not to mention that the flag is front and centre in all promotional materials.

It sticks in the throat. For all their success, The Beatles had one (often both) feet firmly in the counter-culture: producing bonkers avant-garde music, professing radical political stances, openly taking psychedelics and having frequent run-ins with the police. Here these rough edges have been conclusively sanded away to leave what can accurately be summarised as baby boomer crack. 

"Who remembers 1965?" yells not-Paul. Withered arms rise over bald heads, minds cast back to happy, idealistic days gone by, before they sold their principles down the river for a semi-detached faux-cottage in Hampshire, a subscription to The Daily Mail and a small collection of single malts. It's not that I begrudge them their nostalgia, but the process taxidermises The Beatles, discarding the intelligence and danger in favour of stolid repetition of their music.

Let It Be has more in common with a trip to Madame Tussauds than its West End cousins (well, except Thriller). Adding to this waxworky atmosphere are the eerily dead-eyed cast. With the occasional exception of Paul Canning's Lennon everyone feels curiously tranquillised, the illusion of spontaneity and improvisation awfully shaky. I've got to be fair, re-enacting the same two hour concert nine times a week sounds like a very special sort of hell - even the real Beatles got sick of it.

That's about all I've got to say about Let It Be, a show which does what it says on the tin with a minimum of fuss and bother. If you want to sit in a cosy theatre watching a band that, if you squint a bit, look and sound like the Beatles I can't imagine you'll be overly disappointed. But if you're after excitement, surprises or adventure stay away - there's a tonne of amazing shows on in the West End in the same price range - most of which will be a more fulfilling, memorable experience than Let It Be.


Let It Be is at the Garrick Theatre for the foreseeable future. Tickets here.

Thanks to Official Theatre for the tickets.

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