Don’t expect to hum along to the songs during “Presence,” David Harrower’s lovely new play loosely inspired by the Beatles. Those in search of “Mamma Mia!”-style karaoke will have to wait, presumably, until the end of the month and the West End opening of the Lennon and McCartney-inspired “All You Need Is Love.” In the meantime, along comes the latest play from the Scottish dramatist last repped on the London stage in March by his fresh Young Vic treatment of Pirandello’s “Six Characters Looking For An Author.” The musicians on view in “Presence” aren’t so existentially minded, which may be the ace in their author’s hole: These are people not looking for much, really, who find their lives quietly, yet radically, changed.
Harrower’s “characters” on this occasion are a band of musically gifted Liverpudlians — sound familiar? — on tour to Hamburg whose search for a good time goes sour, in the process teaching the lads a home truth or two well away from home. “We are boys, all of us, just boys,” concludes Pete (Michael Legge, the open-faced young lead from “Angela’s Ashes”), the group’s drummer and newest recruit (for Beatles buffs, his presence marks “Presence’s” most intriguing bit of trivia), as the band’s none-too-triumphant journey from one port city to another nears its end. And “Presence” captures precisely, if sometimes a shade elliptically, that essential dramatic flashpoint when boys — like it or not — become men.
The play won’t appeal to Beatlemaniacs craving a fresh arsenal of gossip, especially since the group itself is never explicitly named. (John Lennon, for what it’s worth, remains offstage throughout.) Harrower here is tilling terrain — cultural displacement and exile — of the sort from which Richard Nelson, among others, has forged a career, and “Presence” displays a talent for irony and understatement that Nelson might well understand. The point isn’t so much to allow a salacious peek at a legendary band’s less-chronicled early days (even if the group’s actual 1960 foray to Hamburg has entered the annals of rock ‘n’ roll lore).
Instead, Harrower is juxtaposing two kinds of restlessness to intriguing effect — the Britboys itching for life experience (translation: getting laid) while ignorant of the world and their German hosts who possess far more history than any citizenry’s psyche can manage: not just the nationwide legacy of the Third Reich but the very particular firebombing of Hamburg by the Allies in August 1942, during which 50,000 people died.
The crux of the story is rooted in historical truth. There in fact was a night on tour when the Beatles shouted “Sieg Heil” and “you Nazi bastards” in order, Harrower has said, “just to get a rise out of the audience.” But the playwright keeps that moment offstage, preferring to chart the rising indignation of Paul (William Ash) at the discovery that the club’s (unseen) owner, Bruno, was a one-time Nazi. The incident generates attention, and the group starts attracting a public. (Earlier, they have seen “crowds” of 37 dwindle to 21.)
But whose eyes need opening most, asks a play that steps back to take the bigger picture: Paul may be the feisty upstart keen to demand his place in the world, but when it comes to understanding the ways of society, he remains the insular Englishman abroad.
Harrower’s play airs all sides’ points of view, from the touching eagerness of George (Ralf Little, star of Brit TV series “The Royle Family,” in the standout perf of an altogether excellent cast), whose main concerns relate to finding “the perfect girl,” to local resident Elke (Christine Tremarco), a disaffected German who has taken to trying on an American accent as one way of getting there.
Any tendency towards polemic is dispelled both by James Kerr’s affectionate and inquiring production, unfolding on Rae Smith’s multipurpose and appropriately makeshift set (all bare bulbs and squalor), and by the heft provided by Marian (Sarah Woodward), the German club employee who takes her visiting players firmly in hand. (“Yes, I laugh,” she reassures Paul, sounding as if humor and she have rarely met.)
At first, you think you have the full measure of Marian, the achtung local whose starchy existence exists to be stirred up. But as she hands over the last payment to her musicians, Marian lets slip her own firsthand experience of Nazi incarceration acquired at the price of her enthusiasm for Benny Goodman and swing and for the American sounds of the ’30s. “Why am I here?” she asks rhetorically, limning a character who clearly exists out of both time and place. And with that, “Presence” comes into view as a play about absence, focusing on two distinct yet equally damaged cultures in search not of an author but a home.