Decades after The Beatles stopped making music, the nostalgia remains unrelentless, the appetite for more news and insight, insatiable. The obsession is not just with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but also with the man who made them into global icons: their enigmatic manager, Brian Epstein.
The two-hander play, Epstein – The Man Who Made The Beatles, currently on at Pieter Toerien theatre at Monte Casino, examines the private life of this musical entrepreneur. The play is not about “the boys” – as Brian (played by Nicholas Pauling) fondly refers to the band – but about his own controversial and closeted life. Dead in 1967 at the age of just 32 from an accidental drug overdose, there has been much speculation about him.
Epstein is a fictionalised telling of Brian’s life, set entirely in his apartment, in the drug-fuelled days leading up to his death. His story is seen through the eyes of a young lad from Liverpool, known only as “This Boy” (played by Sven Ruygrok), placing the focus squarely on Brian. The handsome Boy goes home with Brian after a night out, the latter clearly looking for a hook-up. Instead, the Boy’s probing questions about Brian’s life, his “story”, reveal that he’s in fact a journalist for a sleazy tabloid, looking for a break in writing the story about this secretive man. Later, it also emerges that the Boy is a talented musician. “I make stars. If I put my mind to it, I could make you a star,” Brian tells the Boy, though he no longer has the clout to make good on such a promise.
Pauling is stellar as the camp, highly-strung, self-obsessed, pill-popping Brian, his face shining with sweat as he oscillates between ecstatic retellings of his successes, and his low self-esteem as he recounts his rejections. The play highlights anti-Semitism and homophobia, both of which added to Brian’s self-loathing. Ruygrok (of Spud-fame) is well cast, with his straightforward good looks, starry-eyed charm, and a lovely singing voice to boot. The two actors have an interesting chemistry, as they navigate moments of strong and tender human connections, and emotionally-charged shouting matches.
No play referencing The Beatles could get away with not featuring the music. But, the songs are used with restraint, sparsely but cleverly thrown in so that the lyrics mirror specific scenes and dialogue.
It’s a play full of nuance, and is dialogue-heavy (not a bad thing), so if you’re expecting another Beatles tribute you’ll be grossly disappointed. This show is so much better than a tribute (who needs another one?), providing a glimpse into a life that created musical history, but about which little (beyond speculation) is known.
Epstein – The Man Who Made The Beatles is on at Pieter Toerien Theatre at Monte Casino from 12 August to 27 September 2015.