Review: Lennon's Banjo at the Epstein Theatre ***1/2
You need deep pockets if you want to own a key piece of Beatle-related memorabilia – and amazingly even now there are still items coming to light.
But what would the instrument on which a teenage John Lennon learned to play be worth if it could be located today, 60 years after it went missing?
That’s the premise at the centre of this likeable new comedy crime caper by Rob Fennah (the man behind Liverpool stage favourite Twopence to Cross the Mersey) which is being premiered at the Epstein Theatre.
The instrument in question is the mother of pearl-backed banjo that belonged to Lennon’s mum Julia and which vanished after her untimely death in 1958.
When a letter written by John is discovered nestling in the pages of a Beatle fanzine by Fab Four bore Barry (played with warm vulnerability by Eric Potts), it seems its cryptic clues could lead the reader to the instrument’s hiding place.
In Fennah’s fictional story, based loosely around Beatle facts – lots and LOTS of facts, the whereabouts of the banjo soon becomes part of a transatlantic tussle between a bunch of brash Texans and a trio of disparate Scousers with pound signs in their eyes and, in tour guide Barry’s case, the Fab Four in his heart.
Danny O'Brien as Travis. Top: Mark Moraghan, Pete Best and Eric Potts. Pics Anthony Robling
While there are no prizes for guessing who will eventually win the day, the show successfully keeps you wondering where Lennon's banjo might actually be.
Meanwhile it’s the Texans, led by Danny O’Brien’s swaggering, drawling chancer Travis and his exasperated wife Cheryl (Stephanie Dooley), whose actions dominate much of the narrative.
It’s an imbalance which means the relationship between Barry and his fellow conspirators (Jake Abraham and Mark Moraghan playing amusingly fed-up Beatles shop owners), would-be love interest Brenda, and also his promising comedic double act as an ‘Ernie’ to the excellent Alan Stocks’s 'Eric’ - grumpy tour bus driver Sid - remain rather under-developed.
They may not get as much stage time, but the Liverpudlians deliver most of the big audience laughs – including a nifty line about getting inside Lennon’s head, and the show would benefit from a few more of them.
Actor-turned-director Mark Heller maintains a brisk narrative pace, save for a handful of slightly stilted scenes in the second half, while the plot makes its way faithfully around key Beatle sites from the Cavern and Beatles Story to the Jacaranda and the Casbah – where Barry and co quiz Pete Best on Lennon.
Jake Abraham (Steve) and Mark Moraghan (Joe). Photo by Anthony Robling
In a coup for the production, Best is playing himself on a small handful of dates, and while he’s not a natural actor like his talented niece Leanne, he gives it his best shot, visibly growing in confidence during his brief scene to then deliver his pay off line with a well-timed dramatic pause.
Hopefully he’s been taking notes from the show's strong cast, many of them Royal Court regulars who have an inbuilt sixth sense when it comes to comedy and timing, and who have a lovely easy rapport on stage.
The action unfolds on a lo-fi, multi-purpose set which appears to have been created on a shoestring budget, and with minimal scene changes which would benefit from being slicker - something I'm sure will happen as the run continues.