Two of Us stars on returning to Lennon and McCartney roles
It’s 10 years now since Mark Newnham and Tom Connor first met in the Royal Court rehearsal room.
They were there for Bob Eaton's play-with-music Lennon, in which Newnham played a young John Lennon to John Power’s older Beatle while Connor delivered an uncanny turn as Paul McCartney.
“I remember doing Twist and Shout round and round in different keys. They just slowly increased its pitch - they were like ‘and his voice can keep going, keep going, keep going’ ah, that’s about as high as I can do,” Newnham recalls of the initial audition for the show.
Meanwhile Connor had arrived at the Roe Street theatre expecting to try out for the role of Ringo.
“I never actually touched a drumkit,” he laughs. “I got as far as walking in through the door and being told to prepare to audition for Ringo, but Howard (Gray) the MD wouldn’t let me.
“He knew me from some other stuff I’d done and had already decided that there’s no way you can have Paul McCartney on the drumkit.”
The pair reprised their roles the following year when Lennon returned by popular demand.
Above: Tom Connor (left) and Mark Newnham (right) in Lennon. Photo by Activate Digital. Top: Mark Newnham and Tom Connor at the Royal Court.
And although a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, two things have remained constant – the actor-musicians’ friendship (they now even live in neighbouring towns in Hertfordshire) and their work encapsulating one or both members of perhaps the most important songwriting partnership in pop history.
In 2015 they appeared together as Lennon and McCartney in Hot Stuff at the Oldham Coliseum, and four years ago they reunited on the Royal Court stage in Girls Don’t Play Guitars. On that occasion Connor played McCartney, while rather than Lennon, Newnham took on The Kinks’ wild man Dave ‘the Rave’ Davies (a role he also played on tour in Kinks’ musical Sunny Afternoon, recalling “making 2,000 people in the Empire sing Lola, clapping hands, was just really special”).
The same year, Connor played a young Paul in Sky Arts’ comedy drama Urban Myths: Scrambled Eggs.
“We’ve also played John and Paul in different bands,” explains Newnham. “I’ve done a few deps for tribute bands as John Lennon in the past few years, because I already had a lot of the songs under my belt, and there’s a lot of work out there if you know the songbook of the Beatles.”
Connor adds: “I think also, once things did start opening up again (after Covid), it was much easier to get music gigs than it was to get acting jobs. Theatre took a long time to ramp back up, and it’s probably still recovering, but there’s been loads of music, round where we are anyway.”
“We have Lennoned and McCartneyed separately,” Newnham points out. “We’re not exclusive to each other.”
“No,” Connor grins, “we’re polya-Beatlemorus.”
Above: Tom Connor in Girls Don't Play Guitars. Photo by Activate Digital.
Now they are back together – both at the Royal Court, and playing the Liverpool lads who changed the world.
The genesis of Two of Us goes back almost a decade and a half to when actor Mark McGann, who had been the original ‘Lennon’ at the Everyman in 1981, teamed up again with Eaton to create a new show staged at the Philharmonic Hall as well as in Dublin and Newcastle.
McGann played Lennon (a role he has also assumed in a separate stage show, In My Life), Joe Stilgoe took the role of McCartney and jazz singer Claire Martin narrated.
Eaton and McGann are also involved in this latest iteration, the former as director and the latter as musical supervisor.
Two of Us explores Lennon and McCartney’s partnership from their first meeting as teenagers to the break-up of the Beatles 13 years later, with the actors joined on stage by what Newnham describes as “a little muso band”.
He adds: “It’s great for us to really learn all these guitar parts and analyse their lyric writing and see how their progression as songwriters grew as they got older.”
“It’s a chronology of the writing relationship basically,” explains Connor who also describes the show as ‘like ‘an evening with’ that you can’t go to’.
Above: Mark Newnham as Dave 'the Rave' Davies. Photo by Activate Digital.
“So, everything from Woolton Village fete all the way through to Abbey Road. Which is quite a journey. And musically, that’s a great journey to go on with a live band.
“You realise there’s actually real defined chapters in their songwriting.”
Newnham agrees: “They write about love and who they love and who they fancy, and then it grows into actual stories, and then they get quite autobiographical and political as well. I think the songwriting skill grows as they grow more influenced by the world around them.”
Although both men knew the Beatles songbook from learning instruments as youngsters, they admit playing Lennon and McCartney has given them the chance to delve much deeper into the pair's writing and thought processes, assisted by the more recent release of new books and documentaries like Get Back.
“We’re in a different world of information than we were when we did Lennon,” says Connor. “And actually, some of the sources available to us then have kind of been proven wrong by the Get Back documentary and things like (American documentary series) McCartney 3, 2, 1.”
Conversely, I suggest, one thing they did have more access to a decade ago was testimony from people who were ‘there’ when the Beatles exploded on to the music scene and who have since perhaps passed away.
“I remember the first time we did Lennon, so many people came up to us after the show and shared their stories of the Cavern and when they saw the Beatles,” agrees Connor. “I had a lovely lady telling me about the two weeks she actually went out with Paul McCartney.”
Newnham adds: “I had a dinner with my brother-in-law’s mum the other day - obviously not just me and her, there was a table full of people! But she was telling me she had a membership card to the Cavern back when she was 19. I said ‘have you still got it?’ and she said ‘no! of course I don’t’. At the time it was just one of the things that you did.”
Above: Tom Connor and Mark Newsham performing on the Cavern stage. Photo by Clara Mbirimi
So, with an entire Lennon and McCartney catalogue at their fingertips, which song or era are the pair particularly looking forward to exploring on stage?
“We’re both really looking forward to doing the rooftop stuff, just because when the Get Back documentary came out, we were so excited seeing them writing the songs on the spot,” Newnham says. “That moment when you see Paul McCartney write Get Back and there’s nothing there but a bass line and then…
“We didn’t really get a chance to do that when we did Lennon. And now I’ve graduated from Hamburg-era Beatle to long hair and glasses John, I’ve finally made it! My actual age.”
“That’s the scary thing,” Connor chips in. “We’re actually older than they were when it all fell apart.”
Meanwhile, not only is it a happy return to playing Lennon and McCartney, it’s also a happy return to the Royal Court stage for the actors.
“We love the Royal Court. It’s where it all started for us two,” says Newnham. “I met my wife (actress Nicky Swift – who played Cynthia in the 2013 production of Lennon) in this theatre, and we’ve got a dog called Lennon as well. It’s a big part of my life.”
And for Connor, it turns out the Royal Court was his young son’s first experience of live theatre.
“He came to see Girls Don’t Play Guitars, as a little baby,” he says. “And he’ll be up to see this in half-term.”
Two of Us is at Royal Court Liverpool until February 25. Tickets HERE