Let It Be, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Attempts to wrestle a single artist or band’s back catalogue into a form that can provide an entertaining evening of theatrical entertainment have seen various attempts over the years. From the biographical works that play the songs in context (Jersey BoysBeautifulSunny Afternoon) to constructed plays that insert well-known hits into a new narrative (Mamma Mia!Our House) the default is to attempt to structure the works in a musical theatre context. But artists with enough raw material can forego the narrative structure altogether – see the deserved success of Thriller Live!, continuing to draw in audiences in the West End and on tour to see a Michael Jackson tribute show.

It’s this latter formula that Let It Be takes to honour the recording history of The Beatles. There is a chronology to it, to be sure – the costumes and projected sets start off giving an impression of the band’s early days in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, iterating through various key looks and sounds (sometimes with agonisingly long costume changes) until we reach the Fab Four’s final performance atop the roof of their Apple Corps offices. But there is no time taken on exploring the social dynamics of the group, no dissection of how the Lennon and McCartney relationship drove the band on before it fractured under the strain.

No, here it is all about the music, thank goodness. And from the opening strains of I Saw Her Standing There, the onstage band display a fidelity to the group’s rock sound in ways that other tribute acts sometimes struggle to achieve. These early numbers, by virtue of their short song length and upbeat pop tempo, allow the first act to rattle through the Beatles’ rapid ascension to superstardom. From the Cavern, the four progress to the Royal Variety Performance (with Paul Canning’s John repeating Lennon’s famous exhortation for the people in the cheap seats to clap along, and for the rich people in the stalls to just “rattle your jewellery”), and from there to the success of A Hard Day’s Night, their first and greatest film success. It is here where the set’s suspended televisions, previously used to show newsreel footage and camera relays of the onstage performance, first begin to come to true life, showing a beautifully rendered 2D animation recreating the opening scenes of Richard Lester’s film, as the gang run from a crowd of screaming fans.

As the band’s signature mop tops give way to the Technicolor excesses of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the animation really lets riot, a mash-up of Monty Python-style cut-out animation and George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine that only fails to distract from the music because of the glories of the songs being played, and the craft with which they are performed. Emanuele Angeletti’s Paul McCartney, all doe-eyed whimsy, is at his biggest and best contrast with Lennon here, whose embrace of psychedelic imagery and disparate collages in A Day in the Life and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is excellently realised. While the massive orchestral sound that producer George Martin was creating for their big numbers in this era is deadened somewhat by being replaced with synthesisers, the crescendos in A Day in the Life and All You Need is Love are as thrilling in this live rendition as the original tracks are to this day.

As the second act rockets through the band’s Magical Mystery Tour era – the technicolor of Sergeant Pepper still infusing the band’s look, which, like its sound, begins to draw on Eastern influences – the breathless pace finally rests up for an Abbey Road-inspired sequence of more acoustic sequences. Angeletti’s sweetly performed acoustic number Blackbird is followed up by Here Comes the Sun, other band members joining one by one until all four are perched on stools. It is no discredit to Luke Roberts’ Ringo Starr, who performs excellently throughout, that the highlight of the show comes when he is not playing.

As you might expect for a group that dominated the 1960s, the audience for Let It Be is older than for many shows, for most of whom the future tense of When I’m 64 seems a little out of date. But the Beatles’ music – some of the best music the pop world has ever created – is timeless, and that is the spirit that Let It Be captures very well indeed.

Photo: London company, by Paul Coltas