Currently playing at the Warren’s Blockhouse theatre, Beat has the makings of a great love story. But it’s not love at first sight that completely arrests 10 year old Alfie; it’s love at first sound. Here, the one and only object of Alfie’s affections is the drums, and his all-consuming desire to master them drives the show forward. Part soliloquy and part drum solo, Beat is carried by the multi-talented and highly believable Daniel Bellus, and charts Alfie’s obsession with all the angst and exuberance of a teenage romance. Think Whiplash meets Skins.
Think Whiplash meets Skins
Bellus opens the show perched on a stool in relative darkness, his expressive face illuminated by the warm flame of a lighter. 'The greatest thing about the drums,' he whispers, inviting the audience into his confidence, 'is that you don’t need a kit to play.' The show does well to prove this statement - Bellus deftly uses his body as an instrument throughout the performance. His energy is staggering, and he shows off his range as both an actor and a musician, expertly drumming up (sorry, I had to) tensions through to the play’s shocking conclusion.
We follow Alfie from his earliest infatuation with rhythm at age 10 through to a life-changing moment at 17. Throughout, Bellus swings between monologues and drum solos, scoring formative moments in Alfie's life with jazz, metal, rock and samba. We see Alfie struggle academically and socially at school, but he also struggles at home due to his distant mother, abusive father and overachieving younger brother. He’s flummoxed by any conversation topic that doesn’t revolve around the drums, and is painfully naive. A large plot point hinges on the fact that he can’t recognise police cars for what they are in multiple instances. It’s suggested that Alfie is on the autistic spectrum or has severe learning difficulties, but that his love for music drives him to adapt.
Bellus shares the spotlight with two vital co-stars: his red Yamaha acoustic drum kit, and a sleek electronic counterpart. The show’s beating heart relies on Alfie’s relationship with the acoustic kit (which he names 'Tickatoo') and it’s the musical performances that bring the show to life and give it a unique selling point. The drums offer a refreshing change-up to your typical one-man show format, and Stéphane Batlle’s direction was clever overall, particularly where the drum kits were transformed through sound and physicality. I was impressed by a short sequence where Bellus uses one foot to spin the kit full around on its platform, while using the other foot to beat the bass drum, playing with both hands all the while. Despite a few hokey bits (two out-of-place quasi-dance sequences involved oversized and glow-in-the-dark novelty drumsticks) it was a tight, thoughtful production.
Cédric Chapuis' script is at it’s best when its funny and warm, but Chapius doesn’t necessarily offer any actor cast as Alfie a deep, well-researched character to work from. He relies much on stereotype, and ultimately the conclusion is a disappointing, unearned depiction of young people who Alfie’s dad deems 'not normal.' That Bellus crafts a believable, loveable, fascinating character despite flaws in the writing says much for his acting chops. Whilst I didn’t always love the script’s approach to mental health, and feel it might have been edited down to a neat hour, I was impressed by the adaptation’s ability to transplant the storyline from its original French version to a distinctly British context.
At the end, the play circles back on itself, with Alfie repeating his opening lines lit only by a small flame. But after a harrowing conclusion, the optimism is lost for the audience, if not for Alfie, who remains disappointingly naive and blind to his circumstances. Still, Beat was an engaging, mostly tender-hearted story that would appeal to teen viewers and drum enthusiasts everywhere. Bellus’s enthusiastic performance is well worth the ticket. Anyone looking for a variation on the solo show need look no further.