This is not a play about the Beatles. We're told that in no uncertain terms even before the play proper starts. Very little of their music is featured, so anyone expecting a jukebox musical based around the Fab Four will come away disappointed.
Andrew Sherlock's play, which opened to enthusiastic reviews two years ago in Liverpool, is the story of Brian Epstein, the man who discovered the Beatles and who steered them to international success before his death in 1967 of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
A Jewish pill-popping homosexual at a time when being gay was illegal, Epstein was a complex and difficult character to know, and though this two-hander of a play might not give us all the answers it still provides us with a fascinating insight behind the public mask of the man known as "the fifth Beatle".
Opening in his Belgravia flat on what would be the last weekend of his life, Epstein has brought back home a brash but likeable young Scouser referred to throughout only as "This Boy" (just one of many references to Beatle songs throughout the piece). It's suggested that this is a sexual pick-up, until This Boy reveals himself as a would-be journalist and admirer of "Mr Epstein" — or "Brian" and then "Eppy" as he comes to call him during the course of the night — and wants to know how he discovered and made the Beatles.
Alternatively bullying and cajoling, he persuades the initially reluctant Epstein to tell his own story, and what comes across is a lonely man of self-doubt and sometimes self-loathing ("a rich fag Jew", as he recalls John Lennon once calling him), and now living vicariously through the Beatles.
"I look after them," an increasingly desperate Epstein tells This Boy, who replies simply: "But who's looking after you?"
Andrew Lancel is inspired casting as Epstein, looking uncannily like the Beatles' manager, and turns in a spell-binding performance, conveying just the right mix of arrogance and vulnerability, as Epstein feels that he is losing control over "my boys". Will Finlason as This Boy is his perfect foil, charming out of Epstein the story of his life, and the chemistry between the two actors totally deserves the standing ovation they and the play received.
We'll never know what happened on the last weekend of Epstein's life, but this play is a wonderful and haunting evocation of one of pop's greatest, if unsung, and screwed-up heroes, or, as This Boy so succinctly observes, "a mess — and a genius".
Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles by Andrew Sherlock and starring Andrew Lancel and Will Finlason is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 6 September 2014
Go to epsteintheplay.com