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'Backbeat' star says Kirchherr never intended to separate Sutcliffe and Lennon

TORONTO – The play “Backbeat” outlines the birth of the Beatles and the so-called triangular relationship between John Lennon, his best friend and original band bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and German photographer Astrid Kirchherr.

But British actress Isabella Calthorpe, who plays Kirchherr in the production that hits Toronto this weekend, says the love triangle wasn’t a bitter one like many are.

“Astrid certainly never intended to (tear) Stuart apart from the group or apart from John, just very much wanted him to be who he wanted to be. And I think it’s a very pure love story in that sense, there’s no ego attached to it in that way,” she said recently by phone from London.

“But I think there’s a bit of a struggle because John idolized Stuart and obviously wanted him to stay and be a Beatle. I think Stuart was ultimately an artist and that’s what he wanted to be and that’s what he chose to be, and I think a really talented artist too.”

Mirvish Productions is bringing “Backbeat” direct from London to run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre from July 21 to Sept. 2. Opening night is July 29.

Iain Softley, who directed and co-wrote the 1994 film of the same name, co-penned the play that’s directed by David Leveaux and includes tunes by the Beatles as well as other groups.

The story follows Lennon (Andrew Knott), Sutcliffe (Nick Blood), Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), George Harrison (Daniel Westwick) and Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) as they journey from Liverpool to Hamburg in search of success.

Kirchherr first met the group when they were performing at a Hamburg club and began to photograph them. She’s even credited with helping shape their mop-topped image.

“That was, I think, a look that all her German existentialist group had and wore and they were all very stylish and confident in their style, and she cut Stuart Sutcliffe’s hair in that way,” said Calthorpe, 32.

“Stuart, having quite a strong influence on John, I think, then that sort of affected the rest of the band and eventually they all cut their hair in that kind of mop top.”

Sutcliffe and Kirchherr eventually fell in love and he left the group to be with her and pursue his art.

“John Lennon had a very strong relationship and sort of love relationship with Stuart Sutcliffe,” said Calthorpe, whose other stage credits include “Dirty Dancing” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

“So Stuart, I suppose, is caught in the middle and has to choose between being in the band and being an artist and being with Astrid, which is what he ultimately chooses to do.”

The two became engaged but Sutcliffe met an untimely death from a brain hemorrhage at age 21.

“People have said that he could’ve been, and was a really iconic artist in his own right,” said Calthorpe.

Calthorpe hails from a prominent British family (her grandfather was the 6th Earl Howe) and is engaged to Sam Branson, son of British mogul Richard Branson. She said her fiance plans to visit Toronto for a week to attend the play’s opening.

She’s also a friend of Prince William and attended his lavish nuptials to Kate just over a year ago.

“It was magical,” Calthorpe, who’s been a fixture of British society magazine Tatler, said of the wedding. “It was absolutely beautiful and serene and an incredible honour to be asked and to be there.”

Calthorpe came into “Backbeat” after it debuted in Glasgow, Scotland in February 2010. It moved to London’s West End in September 2011.

She said she didn’t grow up listening to the Beatles and didn’t know about this chapter in their history before going into the play.

Her research for the role of Kirchherr involved reading up on her life and listening to some of her interviews.

“And then I had the pleasure and the honour of meeting her after I did the show in Glasgow, in Liverpool, when she was doing an exhibition of her beautiful photographs, about a year ago, so that was amazing to meet her,” said Calthorpe.

“She’s (74) now but amazing and a very cool lady and everything I imagined her to be and more, in a way.”