Walls and Bridges
nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
August 17, 2011
Set in 1974 during John Lennon's “lost weekend” separation from Yoko Ono, and titled after an album he released later that year, Walls and Bridges depicts Lennon, alone in a hotel room, as he's visited by the ghosts of original Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, his mother Julia, and former Beatles manager Brian Epstein (as well as half of a phone conversation with Paul McCartney, whom we never see, but who is terribly eager to re-form the Beatles). The play is punctuated with Lennon's recordings, which comment on the action.
I'm sure, with Lennon's legendarily biting wit, he could have come up with something clever along the lines of “or the lack thereof,” as very little happens in Walls and Bridges other than the Lennon character soliloquizing about being miserable, or conversing with the various ghosts. In form, Scott Murphy's script resembles Ancient Greek drama in an odd way, with the actions described rather than acted and each new character announced in the manner of “Don't you have a moment for your dead mother?” There's nothing wrong with this choice, but it is a bit curious, with little apparent connection to Lennon or the situation in which it places him. Structurally, the script is a bit loose, in a way that can be salvaged by virtuoso acting.
Therein lies Walls and Bridges' biggest liability, though: its performances. Philip Quinn, as Lennon, neither looks nor sounds a thing like John Lennon, which is fine and not Beatle fan nitpicking, as acting is more than impersonation. But the real Lennon was a fascinating, charismatic presence who pulled every eye in the room his direction—as the abundance of film and video footage of him attests—and while Quinn is given a very difficult task in playing one of the most magnetic personalities in living memory, he falls distinctly short of fulfilling it. His hand gestures are disconnected from his actions or what he's saying, which would be fine if that was the theme of the play, but it's not (or if it is, that meaning is very well hidden). Most unfortunate though is the flatness of Quinn's delivery, which is total and unwavering. I feel a little bad singling Quinn out to this extent, but the entire show hangs on him, and he has to be able to keep it going. Perhaps he would do better with a larger or more responsive audience (ours was small and subdued).
I sincerely hope he does, because Walls and Bridges has potential as a narrative. It's about an interesting subject (Lennon's and the Beatles' popularity didn't exist in a vacuum, they compelled intense interest) and there are some lovely moments throughout, such as when Lennon describes Paul McCartney as “like a sister to me” in a conversation with Stu Sutcliffe (in which role Keir Howard is quite good, and wears a black leather jacket extremely well), the observation that “Imagine” is just “a sugared-up version of 'Working Class Hero'” (which it totally is), and a number of isolated instances in which, due either to the historical context of Richard Nixon's impeachment or a bit of a phone conversation with either Yoko or McCartney, Quinn's Lennon briefly comes alive as the vivid character he was and could be. Sadly, for much of the show, particularly the scene between Lennon and his mother Julia—which is oddly and completely devoid of emotion, especially odd when one considers the wrenching emotion of Lennon's song “Mother,” a segment of which plays after that scene—that sense of immediacy is absent.
However counter-intuitive it may seem about a play whose seeming attraction is to hardcore Beatles and John Lennon fans, I think Walls and Bridges will play better to casual Beatles/Lennon fans than obsessive collectors of triviata about same. The narrative of Lennon's “Lost Weekend” is compelling enough that with a larger, more responsive audience, perhaps the oddly listless and tentative acting would pick up. At the performance I attended, though, Walls and Bridges almost worked, and the frustration it caused was more at it not being better, rather than it being bad. With either less strenuous suspension of disbelief or a touch of brevity, it could be quite good.