Saying “don’t even like John Lennon” aloud in a Liverpool venue where the curtain is about to raise on Lennon, the show, is one of those stupid unthinking things I’m unfortunately wont to do, like yelling something about MACBETH having forgotten I’m sat in a theatre. However, it’s okay. Although I’m no fan of the man (there’s reasons), the play has been a favourite since its revival at the Royal Court in 2010.
First staged at the Everyman not long after the former Beatles’s assassination, Lennon went on to the West End and off Broadway. After that initial success, the small matter of Michael Jackson snapping up the rights to the band’s back catalogue meant it had to go into stasis. Skip forward a few decades and with Jacko out of the picture, getting it back on stage was again possible (and, fact fans, all versions have been directed by Bob Eaton).
The show tells the story of John Lennon from his unconventional upbringing in the Liverpool suburbs to… well, you know how it ends. Therein lies the challenge of this work. Lennon is a joy because its drama is understated and wherever possible the music does the talking. The company is also the band, resulting in an endless flurry of musical permutations depending on the song.
The stunt casting of Cast man John Power paid off as it was always likely to, his recognisable Scouse-pop twang sharing many qualities with Lennon in delivery, although no carbon copy. His laid back attitude softened Lennon’s swagger and the pair shared a relaxed Liverpool charm. “‘Ee’s nor’ an actor though, and you could tell”, moaned a friend after the show, but that’s a very arguable point. Power had notable presence, ability and charm and his experience as a performer was quite what was required in the role. A very early highlight of the show, Julia, was genuinely spine-tingling (for what it’s worth, the record does not personally have the same effect).
As ‘older’ John, dressed in the now iconic white suit and glasses, Power acted as narrator looking back on Lennon’s life. As such the first act does not let up pace. The entrance of Tom Connor as Paul McCartney was a pure pleasure – the young actor looking and sounding so like his character the audience were taken aback. The Royal Court will tell you he turned up at the show’s auditions after the part of Ringo – it’s hard to believe. Connor’s assurance and passion during Twist and Shout set an energetic, upbeat tone. With songs like this, it was just simply impossible not to nod, sing, and have a great time.
Our McCartney was so good he ended up having possibly the opposite effect he was supposed to, dramatically overshadowing Lennon and unfortunately leaving ‘young John’ Mark Newnham for dust (another thing that annoyed my friend – the well-documented power balance of the two characters compromised as a result). If any proof were needed how times have changed, Lennon’s ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment, that nearly sunk the band in the US, took four months to cross the pond after the interview in question was reprinted in an American magazine many weeks after it had first appeared in the UK.
The second act did not flow as effortlessly as the first but still had plenty of big moments. The big ‘welcome back’ number I am the Walrus could have done with a bit more oomph (oompa?) and the build up to John leaving The Beatles was peppered with lesser-known songs and seemed somewhat rudderless. However Kirsten Foster’s ballsy Yoko Ono was formidable in a show that didn’t really have much room for women, and John and Yoko’s peace campaigns were genuinely sweet, positive and moving, with songs like Give Peace a Chance regaining that feelgood factor (not to mention the fact the world could still do with a bit of that right now).
Lennon’s murder was subtly, yet dramatically conveyed – one of the real strengths of this play all round is that is doesn’t over-egg the well-worn tale, nor disappear in a fog of Scouse proud nostalgia. It is a quality, superbly enjoyable show that would be right at home anywhere in the world. The allusion to the shooting – and Foster’s emotional address to the audience as Yoko – completely silenced the Royal Court crowd. You read that right. Lennon is not the kind of show you see every day.