Long after “Telstar” has faded into the annals of West End curiosities, one fact from this bioplay of English record producer and manager Joe Meek will linger on: 1967 clearly wasn’t a good time to be an artistically minded person living in north London — especially not one named Joe. Six months before Joe Orton was murdered in Islington, Meek shot his landlady and then himself in much the same part of town. There’s a play somewhere in this odd coincidence, but “Telstar” isn’t it: This one’s strictly for rock-history devotees.
Show has garnered extra attention as the playwriting debut (with James Hicks) of thesp Nick Moran (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), who was nearing the end of his recent West End run on stage in “The Countess” when his offstage effort opened just streets away.
Moran, one hopes, was busy playing John Ruskin by the time the opening night of “Telstar” was all but waylaid by a belligerent man in the orchestra chatting on his cell phone, later commenting on the action. (“It’s a crap play, anyway,” I heard him say.)
The offender was removed at the intermission, at which point it was revealed he was a friend of one of the producers. With friends like that … well, you know the rest.
“Telstar” is by no means a bad play. And every minute of Paul Jepson’s production — particularly Con O’Neill’s fiercely committed lead perf — speaks to its creators’ determination to move away from the jukebox-driven recycling of greatest hits that this could have been. Instead of merely cantering through the music associated with an impresario deemed by many the U.K. equivalent to Phil Spektor, Moran aspires to nothing less than high tragedy among the Holloway Road set.
The play begins at the end: on that sad day in February 1967 when Meek used a hunting rifle on doting landlady Mrs. Shenton (local TV star Linda Robson) before turning it on himself. Meek, 37 at the time, was on the verge of coming into a major fortune.
It didn’t help that the fateful day was the eighth anniversary of the death of Meek’s beloved Buddy Holly. Nor that Meek, by this point a paranoid wreck, was far too hysterical to see ahead 24 hours, much less to the name he had carved out for himself as a music industry pioneer.
“Telstar” (the title comes from a 1962 chart-topper by the Tornados) has some fun at the expense of Meek’s dismissal of the likes of David Bowie, the Beatles (Brian Epstein, we’re told, “doesn’t have a clue what the kids want”), and an up-and-coming group he misnames the Rolling Boys (“just a little warm-up act”). But the play is admiring of the historic noises emanating from the modest, musty recording studio above a handbag shop that was Meek’s unlikely home.
“Telstar” might be better, in fact, if it took itself somewhat less seriously and dared to rock to the era that produced both “Johnny Remember Me,” from 1961, and the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right?”
Meek’s own sexual attentions, meanwhile, were turned toward men, starting with his golden-boy discovery, German-born crooner Heinz Burt (Joseph Morgan), who had a major (and only) hit with “Just Like Eddie” before dying in 2000 of motor-neurone disease. Called “the light bulb” because of his hair, Heinz turned against Meek, abetting the darkness that would go on to overwhelm him.
The arc of a heavily padded narrative descends into too many “I did everything for you”-type encounters, which leave the always impressive O’Neill (“Blood Brothers”) having to enact mad scenes that wouldn’t go amiss in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” With Robson left to do little but embody the spirit of England (“Two wars I’ve been through!” she says before sending Heinz packing), the burden falls to O’Neill to work himself into a grunting, grasping lather in his pursuit of a revisionist adage: The meek, clearly, don’t always inherit the earth.