ACCORDING to popular myth, the heady days of Merseybeat gave birth to a cornucopia of local bands eager to make a name for themselves, with a steady stream of potential recording deals and London-based promoters impatient to get a piece of the action.
There were a number of local entrepreneurs and artists who wanted to get on board. The main players are well-known: Brian Epstein, Ray Fall, Bill Harry, The Beatles, Gerry Marsden and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Merseybeats among them.
Some never quite made it in to the big-time though their contribution to beat-culture in Liverpool was pivotal.
This production centres on a number of personalities who were not only there at the time, but had their own personal dreams and ambitions to fulfil. Yes, this is Beryl’s story, but it also belongs to Joe Flannery, the Cavern, the Star Club in Hamburg, even Sandie Shaw.
This is a relatively short run at the Epstein, but it manages to convey the same sense of shared history from its sold-out debut at the Cavern last June – the first ever stage production there. Did it work on the larger stage? Well, yes if you take the appreciative audience’s response – many of whom were very familiar with Beryl’s own personal journey and achievements.
At the heart of this show is a tale very probably typical of the time – aching adolescent ambition nurtured through the weekly ritual of watching Ready, Steady, Go! whilst being nagged about getting a job after leaving school. It has some resonance to a previous production at the Epstein, “Heart and Soul” about the struggles of being an ambitious female solo artist. In this case, Beryl had a card up her sleeve and not one that was punched after clocking on as a coupon-checker at Littlewoods on Edge Lane.
She had a unique gift. A pure, clear voice with boundless ambition which had been evident from an early age and, even at 15, she had managed to persuade her Mum [Hayley Davies] allow her to sing at clubs around Liverpool. The first half this production focuses on these early years with Francesca Davies as a young Beryl making the most of her bubbly charm, Mary Quant-inspired outfit and beehive hairdo performing quite decent cover versions, more notably “Boys” and “I Know”.
These would have originally been whilst singing with the Undertakers but the backing band at the Epstein do an admirable job, as do Katie King and Sophie Tickle in cameo roles as erstwhile clubbing mates. Likewise, Nick Sheedy’s portrayal of Joe Flannery’s gentlemanly and paternal management is spot on, including the arguments over “dressing-up-or-dressing-down” and eventual introduction to the seedy world of the Star Club and the infamous Reeperbaun district.
Plot development is assisted by side-stage narration by Gillian Hardie who takes over the role of an older Beryl in the second half. That said, are all of these absolutely necessary? Short preambles are OK but they need to be fleshed out by dramatic interpretation and, in some cases, these don't live up to it. The mother-daughter scenes often come across as mawkish. The static stage and occasional poor lighting treatments and unreliable radio mikes tended to take the shine off. Still, by the interval, there is a general feeling of anticipation that something else needs to happen. It certainly does.
Beryl has now arrived in London realising that the Merseybeat scene has passed her by. With it comes the opportunity to work with Rod Stewart and Mick Fleetwood, though these aren't included in the storyline, followed by being on the bill of the last Beatles tour.
The second half focuses more on pitfalls of stardom-interruptus with a descent into both domestic and alcohol abuse. These are given much pathos and gravitas by Hardie through newly-penned songs dealing with shattered dreams as she counts out the pills like they were the steps into backing vocals obscurity and eventual suicide.
Redemption arrives through the most unlikely of circumstances which result in her “finding herself” through Buddhist meditation and becoming friends with Sandie Shaw [Sophie Tickle again]. It gives her a strong sense of self-belief and purposeful motivation from which came a more mature, probably wise, appreciation of her talents and she can perform on her own terms. So, having become one of the touring Vandellas with Martha Reeve, she finds she had the freedom to pick and choose her repertoire as a solo artist in her own right.
Her voice is as good as ever as she sashays around the stage like a twentysomething with some cracking rock ballads and early numbers, in particular “Baby, It’s You”. OK, she doesn't have them actually dancing in the aisles but most people are singing along and there is great feeling that we are being entertained by one of our own.
Prior to the much-anticipated ovation at the end, there is one final surprise. Nick Sheedy announces that a letter has arrived from one Sir Paul McCartney expressing his admiration to everything that Beryl has achieved and wishing the show every success. One Dream? Well, perhaps many dreams in one quite unique woman. One Dame of Liverpool – absolutely.
*One Dream: the Beryl Marsden Story, until 16th March 2014. Tickets here
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