“Girls don’t play guitars,” sneers a typically boorish John Lennon to Mary McGlory, bassist and wannabe pop star. It’s the early ’60s, The Beatles are making it rain sweat and two girls from Liverpool, later a foursome, want a slice of the action. It prefaces one of the most unlikely and lesser-known tales in music.
The story of the Liverbirds – told here for the first time at the Royal Court – seems to have been lost for the best part of 50 years. Despite their huge success in a sleazy Hamburg, two albums and a rolodex of some of the biggest names in pop music at the time, Mary, Val, Sylvia and Pam have been unfairly consigned to an all-female curio in Merseybeat: a band who spurned Brian Epstein and headed for Germany instead.
Writer Ian Salmon details the standard origin storyline of the four becoming entranced by the bright lights, learning how to play and being drawn together by fate, circumstance – and the odd Kink. With some help from Dave and Ray Davies and the Fab Four, not to mention Mick Jagger – who variously offer encouragement, scorn, support slots and more besides – the girls find themselves at the centre of a bidding war between Brian Epstein and a German impresario who promises to make them stars.
Having turned down Epstein they embark on a six-week residency at the Star Club in an eye-opening Hamburg that’s long way from Bootle, following an unlikely and typically creepy intervention from a famous DJ who manages to Fix It for them to make the required money fo the journey, courtesy of a tabloid splash. “You’ll never return,” warns Epstein. How right he was.
With help from a stupidly talented cast and crew, Girls Don’t Play Guitars writer Ian Salmon has created a production that has a whiff of the West End about it.
Molly-Grace Cutler and Lisa Wright belt out the shared lead vocal duties, with Cutler a formidable lead guitarist to boot, while Sarah Workman and Alice McKenna form a tight rhythm section. A blitzing rendition of Roll Over Beethoven – performed by the girls in an affectionate attempt to upstage Chuck Berry when they support him – is a standout moment.
It’s a typically impressive musical proposition at the Royal Court, so much so you suspect the four women could make a very good living gigging around Liverpool if the mood took them.
The Liverbirds are helped by a rotating back line that assume the personas of various characters from 60s pop music and Merseybeat. Tom Connor typically makes the most of cameos as Macca and more. One less acknowledged star of the show is the astonishing set from Mark Walters and that’s no slight on the cast. A giant guitar forms both stage and backdrop, with big screens giving a period grayscale tinge to stills and video of the four girls strutting their stuff.
Things reach an emotional climax as their lives inevitably evolve. Children, marriage and tragedy meant The Liverbirds burned brightly, but only for a short time. And perhaps what’s most striking is the bond between the four women – one that lasts ’til death parts them, in two cases. For all the glamour, glitz and star-power tour through the swinging 60s it’s friendship that marks out their story as something special.
So it seems entirely appropriate and no less emotional when the real-life Sylvia and Mary head to the stage for a rousing rendition of Peanut Butter, alongside the actors. It feels like a very special moment for all who were there.
In Girls Don’t Play Guitars writer Ian Salmon has turned up a cracking story. With help from director Bob Eaton and a stupidly talented cast he’s turned it into a production that has a whiff of the West End about it – and finally does justice to the remarkable tale of The Liverbirds. Unmissable.
Girls Don’t Play Guitars
Royal Court Liverpool
Until 2 November
Pictures: Activate Digital