Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Beatles' 8 th studio album. In May 1967 I was about to take my 'O' Levels when the news hit the school like a bull on the rampage: The Beatles' 8 th studio album was out the following week. Among my cronies and I, once the instant hysteria had been quelled by the application of smelling salts, a council of war determined that one lucky person was to hitch-hike to Reckless Records in Reading and buy a copy at any price. So away he went, coming back hours later with reports of queues stretching halfway to Oxford, but with the gold dust album tight under his arm. We primed the record player, locked the door, drew the curtains for max. concentration, hunched in a circle on the floor and held our breath...
50 years on and the floor's exchanged for the comfy seats of Lady Margaret Hall's Simpkins Theatre, but the curtains are still drawn and the [Oxford] Beatles are warming up to play the whole album in the studio while manager Brian Epstein struggles to adjust to their refusal to tour again and fears the downgrading of his role in their success. The studio's clogged with six guitars, keyboards, amps, bongos, french horns, harps, snare drums and miles of serpentine cable, while the narrow space of Epstein's flat/office is bright with bakelite phones and psychedelic chairs. We're straight into the energy of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', then that droning, bitter-sweet 'With a Little Help from my Friends' from Ringo, then we dip our toes in Wayne T. Brown's paralleling drama into the deep waters of Epstein's last months.
Director Helen Taylor's programme notes reminded us that, though this was a psychedelic concept album, it doesn't contain a linear narrative as such. Brown has had to deal with the challenges of a very limited acting space, just four actors at his disposal and, I presume, a brief of hooking his drama in some degree to the unrolling music. What he has come up with is a marriage rather of tone than of events, and how well it works. The early scenes of Epstein with his posh lady friend and then with an aggressive gay lover (Craig Finlay, nicely pushy and creepy) picked up on Hampstead Heath, suggest plenty of lurid sensation to come. But Brown has something more subtle in mind. He presses on beyond melodrama, and by convincing us of the devotion of Epstein to the career of Cilla Black and the interests of The Beatles ("the boys"), he makes of his character an engrossing psychological study in miniature.
The writer is aided by precise direction from Helen Taylor of space and movement, and by Brian McMahon who, in an immensely warm performance, makes of Epstein a tragic figure as his life spirals downwards as the band's stature corkscrews ever-upwards. His dual relationships with Kate, his faithful scouser P.A., and his mother are funny yet painful to the last degree. Brown lacks the time and space to delve into the underlying basis for Epstein's anguish beyond his being a Jewish gay man when gay sex was a criminal act, but I felt this opening night's audience was desperate to find for him a way out.
Layla Katib, whom I saw the other week in Kindertransport, is here transformed. First as Epstein's languid friend, then his loyal, feisty P.A., when she sees off the blackmailer ("I know you: a big ego and a small dick!") her snapping delivery of the script was superb. As Epstein's mother, confused by but forgiving of his lifestyle, Marilyn Moore fits the role like a glove.
And the band? Surrounded by 10 or 12 backing strings, brass and woodwind, plus Indian tablas and sitar player Veena Sathiendran (I'd forgotten just how impressive a sitar looks), they gave us a marvellous immersive experience, a journey through a sonic soundscape. Riaz Ahmed coped admirably with the challenge of Paul McCartney's vocal range, maybe the widest of any rock singer's, and gave us a wistful 'She's Leaving Home' and a jaunty 'When I'm Sixty Four'. Tom Blackburn's George Harrison wound his voice around the snaking, mystical lyrics 'Within You Without You' as the sitar wailed, and Chris Bayne's John Lennon in beatle mop and granny glasses was in voice a dead ringer for the man, with that slightly drawling, nasal tone.
'Lucy in the Sky' and 'A Day in the Life' are as good as it ever got in psychedelic songwriting and production. To hear the final massive E chords of the latter, decaying but apparently everlasting, took us backwards and forwards in the same instant. Does any other recorded instant in rock history match this one for drama?
A huge standing ovation and 'All You Need Is Love' left us all hungry for more. ElevenOne Theatre's Facebook page features the preposterous words: "Don't miss this show - it will never be repeated!". That's madness in the sky with diamonds! Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap opened in October 1952 and is running still after 27,107 performances. A great night; this Sgt Pepper just has to run and run...