The White Album
at The Dream Factory, Warwick * * *
Review by Terry Grimley
The Beatles' White Album is a famous cultural artefact of the 1960s, but in some respects an uneasy one.
Its relentless emphasis on pastiche, suggesting restless children rooting through a dressing-up box (it would have been called A Doll's House if Family hadn't used the title first) hints at the disintegration not only of the band but of the optimistic forward thrust of the decade.
The dark underside of the counter-culture would soon emerge with the violence at Altamont and the sickening murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson family, weirdly inspired by a perverse reading of some of the most throwaway tracks on this very Beatles album.
Michael Pinchbeck's show, first staged at Nottingham Playhouse earlier this year but reworked for this production by Playbox Youth Theatre, combines two documentary strands concerning the Beatles and the Manson murders with a fictitious one built around the narrator character Miles, an obsessive Beatles fan.
The two acts correspond to the two LPs making up the album, with the scenes following – though not over-slavishly – the running order of the songs. The strands flow in and out of each other with the surreal freedom of a dream or a 1960s drug-induced haze.
However, this probably sounds more interesting as a concept than it proves in its realisation. The basic problem is that we are bound to be more interested in the Beatles and Manson than we are in the foreground figure of Miles, a nerd with mundane relationship problems.
There are priceless documentary nuggets, like the brisk note left by George Martin for his 22 year-old deputy when he went on holiday during the sessions, including a reminder to get milk for the boys' tea.
I'm amazed that I never heard, or had somehow forgotten, the bizarre fate of Beatles road manager Mal Evans, who in 1976 lost the plot and was shot dead by Los Angeles police after an incident in a motel. His estranged wife was sent the bill for cleaning the carpet and his ashes were sent back to Liverpool but never arrived, having got lost in the post.
And then the Tate murders have lost none of their nauseating horror after nearly 40 years. There are moments which are hard to watch despite the stylisation of Stewart McGill's production.
Playbox recently performed it at the Santa Monica Playhouse to audiences which included relatives of the victims and former customers of one of them, celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring.
James Bennison, who doubles the wordy role of Miles with that of Manson, makes a valiant attempt at the ultimately impossible task of holding it all together.
Calum Finlay, doubling John Lennon and Jay Sebring, does a strikingly good take on Lennon's voice, but there's no attempt at comparable naturalism with the other characters (we even get a female Eric Clapton making her cameo appearance on While My Guitar Gently Weeps).
The Beatles' imagined studio banter brings some of the clunkiest writing. By contrast the Revolution No 9 scene, relating the supposed influence of the number nine in Lennon's life, all too effectively conveys the maddening obsessivess that might lead Manson to order the slaughter of people more fortunate or successful than himself, or a Mark Chapman to shoot its actual creator.
But overall The White Album is a patchy affair of intermittent interest – not at all unlike the pop record that inspired it.
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes. Remaining performances from tonight until Sat (7.30pm: Box office: 01926 419555).