This play is not about The Beatles. It is not a showcase of their music. It’s about Brian Epstein, the man who not only made The Beatles into an era-defining band, but thereby influenced the fashion and music of a generation.
This is what actor Sven Ruygrok tells us right off the bat, opening with an impassioned monologue in the thick Liverpudlian accent of his character, known only as The Boy. In the first scene of this two-hander play, he joins Brian Epstein (Nicholas Pauling) in his swanky London apartment, where decanters of brandy glow ominously in a corner.
The obvious interpretation is that Epstein has invited this beautiful boy into his apartment for sex, but either he’s too restrained to give in to his desires (not least because homosexuality was still illegal in England) or he’s looking for something more meaningful than a one-night stand. The Boy, in turn, is not there for lust or money, but because he’s genuinely interested in Epstein himself. He’s a would-be journalist who reveals himself to be smart and insightful with an in-depth understanding of The Beatles and their talented manager.
Epstein, however, struggles to talk about himself, and tends to default to talking about The Beatles instead. The Boy frequently berates him for it, insisting that he wants to know about Brian, not “the boys”. Epstein’s painful reluctance paints him as a man who was never allowed to enjoy being himself, and ended up living vicariously through the successful lives he created for others. He even suggests doing the same for this boy, as if the only way he can express his love and affection is to turn those he admires into idols adored by all.
His expensively tailored suit and posh accent serve as a testament to his closeted existence, and the theme of appearances is a powerful one in the play. Early on, Epstein remarks that The Boy reminds him of someone he once knew, and presumably he’s referring to himself, despite the fact that his slick English style is a far cry from The Boy’s heavy accent, messy hair, and jeans-and-Converse outfit (Ruygrok’s shoes and bag should have been scruffier, though; they look too new).
It’s clear, however, that Epstein’s appearance is a facade designed to elevate him above his humbler beginnings, and protect him from the hardships and loneliness of his life. He speaks of clothing as armour, and when he dresses The Boy up in a suit, he remarks that a good suit makes a man “un-f***ing-touchable”. Epstein had wanted to become a dress designer, but his father refused to allow him to pursue that profession. Nevertheless, he put those talents to work by crafting The Beatles’ image.
As Epstein tells his story to The Boy, he drinks heavily, soon coupling his brandies with sedatives. His appearance becomes increasingly disheveled, and the loss of his ‘armour’ coincides with the reveal of his insecurities and emotional instability. Pauling’s performance here is excellent, as he transitions from Epstein’s stiff public persona to his desperately unhappy, drug-addled self.
Ruygrok is equally impressive, not only as The Boy, but in a variety of small roles in flashbacks to Epstein’s youth and history with The Beatles. For those who have only a passing knowledge of his legacy, some of these flashbacks may be hard to follow. But this by no means spoils the experience of the play; Epstein is not a biography intended to lay down the facts so much as an impression of a highly talented and deeply troubled man in his final hours. As such, it’s a superb piece, and if I had the chance I’d watch it again.
Epstein will run at Theatre on the Bay from 6 to 17 October 2015.