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Review: John Lennon - a Life in Music at Philharmonic Hall ****

This year has seen two major anniversaries in the Lennon legend – the former Beatle’s 80th birthday and the 40th anniversary of his untimely death.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic planned to commemorate the latter with a series of full-length concerts based on Bob Eaton’s 1981 hit musical Lennon and featuring the full force of massed symphony orchestra.

Well, we all know 2020 has gone completely topsy turvy, but despite the upheaval to its original season the Phil has managed to retain the heart of its plan in three nights showcasing a truncated version of Eaton’s Lennon life story.

Here Adam Hastings, who in a previous incarnation played Lennon in the Bootleg Beatles – including during the Sgt Pepper 50th anniversary tour with the Phil, acts as nasal-toned narrator of ‘his’ own life, while West End star Louise Dearman adds vocal support.

A small selection of images, from the young Lennon in school cap to bread-making, stay-at-home Dakota Building dad, are beamed on to a screen suspended above the 30-strong orchestra.

Anyone who is au fait with Eaton’s show will recognise the narration, from the Goonish foolery of Lennon’s birth while the ‘Nasties were still booming’ Liverpool to the disillusioned John saying: “I don’t believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. Yoko and me.”

Hastings and Dearman mostly alternate on performing the selection of songs from an opening In My Life, with its resonant emotion here in Liverpool, to the final call to Imagine.

The Beatles’ early catalogue doesn’t really lend itself to orchestration in the way the later, more complex, music does, meaning the first few numbers tread the thin line between music and muzak, delivered with a distinctly 60s cocktail lounge or groovy movie-style feel.

It’s A Day in the Life which marks the change to more successful orchestration, a lovely plaintive opening vocal line from Hastings supported by understated scoring which then shifts gear into the song’s famous 24-bar atonal crescendo, topped with its contrasting and oh-so-jaunty middle eight.

The jauntiness continues through I Am the Walrus, while Strawberry Fields Forever has a lovely woodwind opening and great use of percussion.

The percussion also works nicely in Come Together, with Dearman, in Bassey-style sparkle, providing slinky vocals, and the section carries on to set up a strong bossa nova beat in a Two of Us duet.

Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’ brings with it a terrific rendition of Jealous Guy, the Phil under conductor Richard Balcombe shifting smoothly from simple strings to swelling full orchestra below the wistful vocal line, while Hastings’ tentative falsetto opening to Free as a Bird, paired with a lone keyboard, has a vulnerability which proves really effective.

Five short, crisp ‘shots’ on drum bring Lennon’s life story to a sobering and premature full stop.

Given the current state of things, not least in America, there’s a rather sad irony in the statement, released on December 9 1980 and read here by Dearman, in which the bereaved Yoko Ono speaks of her hopes for a society ‘based on love and trust’.

But with an encore of All You Need is Love receiving a warm reception from the masked, socially distanced audience in the Philharmonic Hall, it’s a message that evidently still has meaning for plenty of people.

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