Epstein - The Man Who Made the Beatles
From me to you, this show is a hit
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Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2
Nicely couched: Andrew Lancel and Will Finlason
I'd love to know what the surviving Beatles make of Andrew Sherlock's play about their manager. Any impression that may have formed of an opportunist who made his mint by exploiting the talent of four naïve, working-class boys from Liverpool - five if counting Pete Best, who Brian Epstein sacked at the behest of John, Paul and George in order to make room for Ringo - is methodically and movingly dismantled by this two-hander.
The writing is good. But the acting in Jen Heyes's modest production is terrific. Sherlock sets his play in 1967, just before Epstein's death. The action takes place in the manager's Belgravia pad, to which Epstein (Andrew Lancel) has invited a young man (Will Finlason), whose James Dean looks Epstein cannot resist.
A verbal and physical joust ensues with each protagonist attempting to get from the other something they desperately want. Epstein wants his guest's company and body. The young man - aka This Boy - reveals himself to be a budding journalist who desperately wants Epstein's story.
The play captures the slightly sordid solitude of a man without whom the Beatles may not have broken the UK, let alone the US. At least that's the case Sherlock's play powerfully puts. But the main objective is to rehabilitate a maligned reputation. It's a story fuelled in the telling here by glasses of expensive brandy and, in Epstein's case, the pills continually popped to bring him down from a high or raise him up from a low.
Facts and myths are spilled and, to some extent, separated. Jewish, gay and born into a wealthy Liverpool family whose furniture and electrical business was never going to suit their flamboyant son, Epstein gave the Fab Four more than he received. At least in terms of money. He didn't even sign his first contract with the group. He wanted them to be able to leave at any time.
"Perhaps it was not wanting to be seen as a tight-fisted Jew. Maybe it was masochism," he says. Lancel's portrait, well supported by Finlason, suggests a brimful of contradictions - charisma clashing with the self-loathing of a man whose sexuality had no public place in the oft-forgotten conservatism of the swinging sixties. By the time Epstein died of an overdose, his "boys", as he liked to call them, were still only young, of course. But considering that decades later Paul described Epstein as a fifth Beatle, the band's treatment of their manager was often unfair.
Paul is depicted as a calculating presence often manoeuvring for power, John wasn't averse to the occasional antisemitic jibe and George, the most spiritual of the group, was the one to give Epstein the most grief over money. Then there is the music and it's here that Sherlock's writing rises to the challenge of describing what it was like in those early days to be in The Cavern watching the birth of brilliance. It wasn't the music that hit you, remembers Epstein, it was the energy.
The play's a must for Beatle aficionados. For everyone else, it's a rewarding, enlightening two hours.