Brian Epstein, the enigmatic gay Jewish manager of the Beatles who was dead by 32, is the subject of this fascinating new play by Andrew Sherlock. It runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until September.
Epstein – the Man Who Invented the Beatles sheds much-needed illumination on one of the unsung major influences on popular culture. The play brings Epstein, always overshadowed by the large personalities and global success of his ‘boys’, into the foreground. Over the course of one evening in Epstein’s London flat, he tells his story to a plucky young wannabee from Liverpool known only as This Boy.
Epstein’s homosexuality was another reason why he remained in the shadows, and it’s great to see play about one of the most influential gay British men of the last century, who died the year the law criminalising homosexuality was finally repealed in England and Wales.
Aficionados of the Beatles and 1960s music will adore the show. It’s chock full of references to the movers and shakers of the industry. But you don’t have to be a Beatles fan to enjoy it. Epstein – the Man Who Made the Beatles is a beautifully written character study. Epstein’s intriguing personality, and the shifting balance of power between him and This Boy makes for a rewarding drama. Ultimately, it’s a powerful and often moving human story analysing a man hailed as a genius but racked by self-doubt.
The simple design of Epstein’s flat is effective. The faithful recreation of 60s decor lends a strong period feel, but the white walls serve another purpose since they’re used for imaginative projections that offer a route into Epstein’s thoughts and memories. A neat device, well used. The pace of the play is satisfyingly varied, though there are moments, especially when both characters are seated on the sofa, that feel a little static.
The talent involved in the show is overwhelmingly Liverpool-born, and this helps it establish a strong sense of identity. The show boasts plenty of scouse humour and wit, from This Boy’s constant proverbial-taking, to a macabre opening to act two, which is brilliantly played for laughs. Locals will enjoy a few in-jokes and references (the Fiveways Roundabout is given a mention).
Casting is crucial to the success of any two-hander, and this production is spot on. Will Finlason is perfectly cast as the plucky, handsome upstart. He’s immensely personable, and successfully invites the audience to share the journey into finding Epstein with him. Also, he takes his kit off more than once: and we’re not above pointing out that this is an added bonus.
As for Andrew Lancel in the title role, he is simply superb as Epstein. Not only does he look, move and speak the part – there’s an actor who’s clearly done his research – he brings Epstein to life on the stage with astonishing veracity. His performance is a must-see. There are flashes of arrogance and vulnerability in equal measure. There’s the delightful pomposity with which he overplays Konstantin as he performs an excerpt from The Seagull, recalling his failure (thank goodness, as it turns out) as an actor. As any actor will attest, playing bad acting isn’t easy to pull off. The part of Epstein demands that the actor swivel rapidly between emotions as the fractious psyche of the man is revealed. Lancel is equal to the task, and when he begs This Boy to stay, it’s such a pitiful display that we reassess Epstein, as we constantly do throughout the play. We find an essence of Epstein, but he’s impossible to pin down. The fascination lies in the uncertainty.
Nuanced, personal and intense, Epstein – the Man Who Managed the Beatles is a captivating character study that will especially enthral fans of the Fab Four.