The play “Epstein – The Man Who Made the Beatles,” about Beatles manager Brian Epstein, opened Tuesday in London's West End at the Leicester Square Theatre. The engagement follows its initial run at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool. A press preview on Monday was attended by several celebrities, including Mike McCartney, Paul's brother, Beatles booking officer Joe Flannery, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson, singer Beryl Marsden and actress Jenny Seagrove.
It also got rave reviews from those who were there, according to Donna Jackson, our Liverpool correspondent who was at the performance. “In November 2012, I saw “Epstein – The Man Who Made the Beatles” at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool. I thought the play was phenomenal and I therefore was delighted – made up, as we say in Liverpool – to hear that the play was transferring to London’s West End. But I also have to confess that I was a little nervous. Telling Brian’s story in his home town was one thing, but whether that story would have the same impact surrounding by the cream in British theatre was another.
“I attended the press performance of 'Epstein' and, within moments, any nerves were swept away. To put it simply, class tells. And this play is nothing but sheer class. Indeed, sheer perfection. The play is a simple two-hander – Andrew Lancel plays Brian Epstein and Will Finlason plays 'This Boy' (or that boy, a nowhere man or a fool on the hill). Brian’s story is told through the conversation between the two men when ‘Brian’ invites the young Liverpool lad back to his apartment in August 1967.”
“The play takes place just a few days before Brian dies,” said Richard Porter of Beatles In London.com who leads Beatles walking tours in London and who also attended. “He is already in a mess and dependent on pills. At one point 'This Boy' struggles to wake him up and another time Brian is shaking uncontrollably. Brian tells 'This Boy' about his early life, and how difficult it was being gay and Jewish. Brian is attracted to men who often beat him up and blackmail him. He has much energy and drive in life, but no outlet for it until he sees the Beatles at the Cavern Club. From then, on Brian is consumed by the Beatles.”
“The script, superbly written by Andrew Sherlock, does more than tell Brian’s story though,” says Jackson. “It lays bare the man himself, and strips away the calm, businesslike veneer of Brian-the-manager to reveal a complex, troubled, but yet wonderful man who is deserving of love, sympathy, respect and admiration.” She also said the play has many Beatles moments, but they don't overwhelm it. “There were enough Beatle references and in-jokes to please the biggest Beatle fan, but not too many that the script became corny or clichéd.”
Both Jackson and Porter had high praise for Andrew Lancel's portrayal of Epstein. “Andrew Lancel was born to play the role of Brian Epstein,” says Jackson. “From the moment he steps on stage, he is Brian. Even when the focus is not on him – for example, when the little film sequences are playing – he stays completely in character. There is not one moment in the play, from start to finish, when Lancel does not evoke Epstein; every gesture, stance, intonation, raised eyebrow or half-smile is sublime. While Lancel is onstage, Brian is with us once again.”
“Lancel's performance as Brian is incredible,” says Porter. “If there is a better performance in the West End I would like to see it! Brian was a very complex character, sometimes proud, sometimes arrogant, but also incredibly vulnerable, lonely, and angry. Andrew Lancel plays the role with great sensitivity and despite all his faults, you cannot help but like Brian and feel incredibly sad when we know he is going to die.”
Keith Moore, who actually had a personal encounter with Epstein, said Lancel's portrayal was spot on. “I actually encountered Epstein once in NEMS, though didn't speak. This was in June, 1967. Andrew Lancel brought this all back to me.”
Jackson and Porter also praised co-star Will Finlason. “He is utterly and completely believable; his humor, his frustration, his sympathy and his respect for Brian is depicted perfectly,” said Jackson. “His musical talent was just as apparent and his performance of 'Baby It's You" (one of my all-time favorite songs performed by The Beatles) was hauntingly beautiful. It is through the interaction with Finlason that Lancel is able to show the many complex facets of the man that Brian was.”
"Will Finlason, as 'This Boy' is a perfect foil to Brian and is another great performance," said Porter. "The monologue Will gives about going to the Cavern for the first time is outstanding."
All three urged fans to go see the play. “If you are in London before Sept. 6, do not miss out on the chance to share in a magical, emotional and very, very special experience,” she said. “'Epstein - The Man that Made the Beatles' is the best Beatles-related drama I've seen, with a great script by Andrew Sherlock and outstanding performances by Andrew Lancel and Will Finlason,” Porter says. “I urge everyone to see it.
“All in all it was a great 90 minutes," said Moore. "Very difficult to sustain with just two actors in the room room all the time, but they pulled it off amazingly well.”
The play is set to be in London until Sept. 6. Tickets are available on the theater's website.