By Michael J.McDonagh
THE history of show-business and rock music holds an eternal truth: behind every successful mega star there is usually a strong guiding manager standing in the shadows.
Without these remarkable characters most of the talented artists we know would not have seen the light of day. From Colonel Tom Parker the man who managed Elvis to our own Paul McGuinness, who managed U2, there is a long tradition of talented men (and occasionally women) who have the vision and tenacity to see the potential of raw talent and to work tirelessly to achieve success for them.
The biggest and most successful band in the world was the Beatles, who broke all the rules and achieved world wide domination. They were managed by a young cultured middle class Jewish businessman, who ran NEMS the family record store in Liverpool and who happened to be gay. He saw the rough talent of his prodigies in the sweaty basement of the Cavern club and propelled them to become the Beatlemania phenomena and by the time they split up the biggest band the world had ever known.
We all know the Beatles story but we know so much less about Brian Epstein, the man behind them, who died from an accidental drug overdose aged 32 on August 27 1967.
A new play by Andrew Sherlock, who previously wrote Fall From Grace about the Liverpool Irish, opened on Monday at the Leicester Square Theatre attended by a variety of celebrities. Poignantly in pride of place in the second row was Joe Flannery, a lifelong friend and business associate of Epstein, who was there working with him right from the start of the Beatles.
Such was the accuracy of the script and performance that he was moved to tears at certain points in the drama. The play attempts to explore the character of ‘outsider’ Epstein, this extraordinary and complicated remarkable private individual, through his strengths , foibles, insecurities and creative vision, speculating at what he must have been going through just days before his tragic unexpected death.
It is a challenging two hander set in the luxurious Belgravia apartment of Epstein as he brings home ‘This Boy’, a fictional Liverpool character concoction, whom he has just met in a bar.
Epstein was gay at a time when to be caught as a practising homosexual was illegal but through a mixture of loneliness and sexual desire, with a tendency to live on the edge of danger, he would frequently pick up attractive young boys and bring them home often with disastrous consequences.
The theatric device of ‘This Boy ‘played convincingly by talented newcomer Will Finlason, represented a range of various ‘boys’ Epstein may have plucked out. By asking nosy questions, the full range of Epstein’s moods , emotions and personal anxieties are revealed. Through the success of The Beatles he made millions, ran a show business empire in the heart of London but was lonely and unfulfilled.
Epstein interviewed on the UK Tonight Show, 1964:
Brian Epstein along with the history of the Beatles from his perspective is powerfully portrayed in an outstanding tour de force of acting by Andrew Lancel, familiar to television viewers from playing DI Neil Manson in The Bill and Frank Foster in Coronation Street.
His ability, through his replica ‘posh’ accent and mincing mannerisms to morphed himself into Brian Epstein was quite extraordinary, especially in the more violent mood swinging emotional movements when, through an intake of his ‘little helper drugs’ and quantities of his favorite vintage brandy he switched from reverting to being a crying schoolboy one minute then back to a composed arrogant proud tyrannical rock manager the next.
Lancel according to Joe Flannery, who should know, said he got Brian off to a tee. This was a man full of insecurity from his gay Jewish background or his failure to become an actor and although devoted to his ‘boys’, the Beatles, he was often hurt from their humorous cruel jibes and frequent slights. (John Lennon cuttingly suggested that Brian’s Autobiography titled A Cellar Full of Noise should really be called A Cellar Full of Boys !)
This intense play is both funny and very sad but achieves the goal of presenting a moving picture of the life behind the scenes of a man who changed the face of the Music Business. In our current liberated society with gay marriage accepted and the old school class system of prejudice against those with working class provincial accents more or less gone it was illuminating to look back and realise just how hard it must have been to be like Epstein breaking down those barriers at that transforming time.
Andrew Lancel deserves an award for the energy of his nuanced performance. Whether you are a Beatle fan or not, this is an engaging clever play not to be missed with both actors getting well deserved standing ovations as they portrayed this period of sixties popular culture.
Well worth seeing.
Epstein : The Man Who Made The Beatles at The Leicester Square Theatre until Saturday Sept 6.