The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool – until Saturday 5th May 2018
Reviewed by Julie Noller
It’s totally fitting that Lennon’s Banjo should receive it’s world premier in the theatre saved from dereliction, refurbished just a few short years ago and renamed after one of histories most prolific musical managers; Brian Epstein. Liverpool a proud city full of history, music and memories. The Epstein may be a small theatre up many stairs (there is a lift for those needing assistance) but it has character and charm in abundance. I felt like I was stepping back into a time of music halls, what a welcome indeed what a delight it was. Before the performance and during the interval break it was perfectly apt that those little touches such as banjo music playing Beatles songs was helping to set the mood. It’s also 60 years since John Lennon’s Mother Julia was tragically killed.
Originally written as a novel by Rob Fennah and Helen A Jones, Julia’s Banjo has been adapted by Rob Fennah himself in fact as co producer with Bill Elms it’s been a labour of love. It’s a story that has you questioning, full of what if’s. The question I’ve been asked most ‘is it a true story?’ isn’t an easy one to answer, well yes and no. And that’s where this play is clever, it’s set in present day Liverpool. Using all the knowledge of Beatlemania, the hype and somewhat disdain of others. It’s full of typically scouse humour, fast paced and many one liners. There’s also a love story typically British, boy loves girl, girl loves boy but will they actually get their acts together?
The play has been described as the Liverpudlian Da Vinci code, in fact our hero Barry played as an utter anorak of Beatles knowledge, the tour guide who lives and breathes all things Beatles, by Eric Potts, uses the phrase himself. The audience love Barry he is well, just Barry uncomfortable dealing with life that doesn’t involve talking about The Beatles. All our characters are far from the sophisticated personas introduced in the afore mentioned novel. But they are all average Brits, characters you could recognise walking down the street, you feel comfortable instantly knowing them. The costumes may not have us all rushing to copy, but look round and I believe if you’re not wearing jeans then someone close by will be.
The stage and audience were littered with many well known names and well deserved to be sold out. Most of our actors took on multiple parts and it wasn’t without hilarious consequences. You’re probably wondering what about the banjo? It’s called the Holy Grail of pop memorabilia, the first instrument that John Lennon played, taught by his mother Julia. Without that banjo it’s said there would be no Beatles and without The Beatles then where would we be? This is where fact and fiction collide, we are taken on a fast paced ride, slightly farcical at times but had us laughing nonetheless. Barry is seen as many as boring, without a life, is told by his driver Sid (Alan Stocks) to stop talking to women (namely Brenda) about The Beatles, giving advice to talk about normal things like cars and football. Joe and Steve (Mark Moraghan and Jake Abraham) own the Beatles Memorabilia Shop, Barry bores them. Despite hiding from him and failing. They don’t escape and ultimately have to listen to him albeit halfheartedly whilst he drones on about a letter he found unopened, written by John Lennon to Stuart Sutcliffe – the fifth Beatle. Cue one of the many off track topics of conversation and main arguments over who was actually the fifth Beatle! The letter written in code Jabberwocky, if broken will give the whereabouts of Lennon’s Banjo. It could be worth millions, everyones dreams could come true, it’s a total only fools and horse’s moment. Joe and Steve could leave cold dreary Liverpool for Tenerife and finally own their own bar, Barry, you just know his life won’t change for Barry is happy with his life in contrast to all the other characters.
The conversation is overheard by brash and desperate for his fortune Texan Travis (Danny O’Brien) who enlists his wife Cheryl (Stephanie Dooley) to seduce Barry and get hold of that letter. Travis doesn’t have the heart that Barry does or deep down Cheryl, she goes along to please her husband and we are introduced to some wonderful characters who are so stereotypical but you know those actors on stage are having a great time playing. Alan Stocks in one of my favourite bits plays Billy a manc parker wearer, shuffling along singing Oasis songs. Steals the museum banjo for Travis but stashes his drugs inside in the process. Thus leading Travis to set up Roy Carruthers who as DeVito is a ruthless Texan millionaire. You sense that the lovely Brenda (Lynn Francis) may hold the key for both unlocking Barry’s heart and solving the riddle. Indeed she does and all ends with a flourish as our hero gets his lady, Cheryl gets her romantic European vacation in Paris not Liverpool, Steve and Joe head off to sunnier climates. You can see how fast paced this play is, packing lots of laughs and a huge story line.
Of course they say save the Best for last…. They didn’t but halfway through I am now lucky and chuffed to say at my tender age I have seen a member of the Beatles up on stage, to coin that phrase the fifth Beatle, the original drummer Pete Best. He lapped up the cheers and applause and will only be appearing on select dates. He plays himself and in a typically humorous twist they believe he has the banjo. You sense the doom descend as dreams are shattered. Fear not for Pete Bests cheery face will not keep the mood low for long. It was a fabulous performance and enjoyed by all, I even had the opportunity to discover about how the cast and producers are supporting the Salvation Army and their Strawberry Fields project.