Theatre preview: Backbeat

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RINGO Starr said Backbeat got the sound of The Beatles exactly right. That was a big compliment for Iain Softley, but also a surprising one. The writer and director of the 1994 movie had set out to capture the spirit of the Fab Four in early 1960s Hamburg rather than attempt a note-perfect tribute. For Ringo to say he got it right suggests Softley's instinct was spot on, even though authenticity was never his aim.

"What I wanted was to recreate the impact these guys had on the people that saw them," he says. "We just picked musicians who had a similar attitude – at the time, it was Dave Grohl from Nirvana, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and Mike Mills from REM. The result was that when Pete Best (The Beatles' original drummer] did his documentary, he used our soundtrack as the best indication of how the band sounded. The funny thing was we didn't set out to do that at all."

Softley is taking the same approach to the stage version of the film, which has its world premiere this month at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre before a hoped-for London transfer. As we approach the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first trip to the low-life nightclubs of the Reeperbahn, he is aiming to create a sense of the rough-and-ready excitement the band generated, without being too concerned about historical accuracy.

"It's not straitjacketed in history," he says. "It's not trying to be a reproduction, a restaging or a tribute. I've taken the energy and the essence of the story and I've launched the actors and musicians at this idea."

He knows a show like this will depend on the conviction of the musicians, which is why band rehearsals began as long ago as December. It's also why they've been warming up with live appearances at clubs including Glasgow's McChuill's. With sometime Oasis guitarist Paul Stacey as musical director, the creative team is putting everything into perfecting the energy of raw rock'n'roll.

"I went to see them rehearse, it was only the third time they'd played together and they were fantastic," says Isabella Calthorpe, who plays Astrid Kirchherr, the German photographer who captured the heart of original bass player Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960. "I couldn't believe they hadn't been playing together forever to have a real chemistry so early on. It was really exciting."

Softley agrees. "They are a great rock'n'roll band now. Paul Stacey has honed them into a fantastic performing unit. They ripped the place up in their Glasgow gig. The difference between the film and the play is you're in the same room as the guys playing."

The director, however, is quick to point out that Backbeat is no jukebox musical. He chose to launch the show at the Citizens' because of its reputation for straight drama.

Far from being a lightweight sing-along-a-Beatles show, his play focuses on the tragic story of their bass player. Sutcliffe had stunning looks but was no great shakes as a musician and, having fallen in love with Kirchherr, he left the band to pursue his vocation as a painter. It was a vocation cut cruelly short by a fatal brain haemorrhage at only 21.

"At the same time as the electric atmosphere created by the music, the experience is of the dramatic story," says Softley. "It's about the choice Stuart Sutcliffe has to make between his best friend, John Lennon, and his girlfriend, and between rock'n'roll and art."

Coming hot on the heels of Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, about Lennon's childhood – not to mention the hype of The Beatles Rock Band video game – Backbeat is a historical record that can still connect to a young audience. For those familiar with the story, what this retelling offers is an insight into the band's eventual transition from teen sensations to sonic pioneers. Hamburg gave them more than the mop top haircuts that defined their early image. It also gave them a taste for art, not least through their friendship with Kirchherr and her ex-boyfriend Klaus Voormann, who would go on to design the sleeve for Revolver.

"The band was honed in the creative furnace of Hamburg, both musically and in terms of the exposure to the bohemian art world and the ideas of Astrid Kirchherr and her German art school friends," says Softley. "It created the first art band. A few years later they commissioned Peter Blake to do the cover of Sgt Pepper and almost immediately John Lennon was moving away from the idea of being a conventional performing act. The play will show people visually what the world was, but it will feel as if you've gone back in a time machine and it is happening in the present."

Backbeat, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Tuesday until 6 March www.citz.co.uk

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 07 February 2010

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