By BRUCE DENNILL
Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles / Directed by Fred Abrahamse / Studio, Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Beatles manager Brian Epstein, despite still being a household name, has never been as well understood as his Scouse charges, whose presence in the dead centre of the musical spotlight for nearly a decade owed much to the work done behind the scenes by Epstein.
This two-hander delves into the private life of this enigmatic figure, adding a nameless visitor – the character’s name is “This Boy” – to help expand the audience’s understanding of how Epstein works.
The whole thing takes place in one room: couch, table and a drinks tray that takes a beating as the characters talk deep into the night. It’s a slightly claustrophobic setting, mirroring the private nature of the protagonist, who comes out of his shell slowly as familiarity with his guest, a touch of naivete and a great deal of alcohol and a handful of pills help to overcome his wariness.
Epstein is played with masterly control by Nicholas Pauling. It might appear that the role is simplified to some degree by the descent into drunkenness that the character goes through during the piece’s running time. But Pauling never takes the easy route – playing the same part but just slurring some words or similar. Instead, he communicates how all of Epstein’s foibles – including paranoia, hubris, a violent temper and a fierce devotion to his craft – are either exacerbated or challenged as his grip on his facilities begins to falter.
Sven Ruygrok, best known (so far) for playing Rambo in the Spud movies is equally good as a young would-be journalist wanting to get behind the façade Epstein presents to the world. He handles the difficult Liverpool accent with admirable consistency and gives as good as he gets in emotional terms as Pauling’s Epstein alternatively rants and reflects.
Both actors have an enormous amount of dialogue to handle and neither misses a beat throughout the play’s fairly lengthy running time. The mechanism of making the foil to the famous eponymous character an anonymous nobody seems odd at first, but as Epstein’s brittle layers are gradually peeled away, the wisdom of playwright Andrew Sherlock’s decision to set things up this way is revealed. The script is tight and clever, and the performances are fantastic – it’s a great, compact package.