Saturday 25 October 2014

Memphis - Review

Shaftesbury Theatre, London


Book and lyrics by Jo DiPietro
Music and lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Christopher Ashley

Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly

The history of the United States’ black population gaining civil rights is fertile ground for musical theatre. As The Scottsboro Boys opens in the West End dealing with an horrific injustice, so now the Tony-winning Memphis arrives from Broadway. Set in 1950’s Tennessee a deeply segregated Southern state, the redneck white folk don’t tolerate “race music”. No melting pot, Memphis seethes with racist oppression and it is against this backdrop of hatred and lynching that DiPietro and the Bon Jovi keyboards player Bryan have created their tale.

Beverly Knight proves why she’s one of the UK’s greatest soul singers. As Felicia, a girl with a gift of a voice and a quietly acknowledged sensation amongst those who’ve heard her sing, Knight owns every song with her hallmark power. Her opening number Underground defines both the passion of her performance as well as setting the scene for the illicit network of clubs in the city that provide discrete stages for Black music. Her act one solo Coloured Woman is an inspired performance of on-stage soul, rarely witnessed and unforgettable.

Loosely based on the real life radio broadcaster Dewey Phillips, Killian Donnelly is Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey with a passion for African-American music and who, in a tale woven around fantastic whimsy and some brutally ugly realities, champions Felicia’s singing, breaking down some of society’s segregating barriers and getting her heard on mainstream “center of the dial” music stations. Donnelly has taken leading roles in some of London’s biggest leading shows, but unlike Knight’s pop star fame, outside of the showbiz bubble and hardcore West end fans he is barely known. His casting as Huey however proves to be not only brave, but also inspired. He has a gorgeous blues sound, displayed early on in The Music Of My Soul along with the confidence and poise to lead all his numbers. His character demands an almost geeky appearance, but it’s a veneer that cloaks a Tarantino-esque excellence.

A lot of money has been invested in Memphis and it shows. The sets are clever and the musical numbers that range in style from ranging from rock to spiritual are brilliantly arranged with Sergio Trujillo repeating his Broadway choreography. The first half of the show is stunning, leading to a pre-interval denouement that devastates in its emotional power and musical brilliance. Rarely has one staggered out for a half time G&T quite so moved. Act two however lacks dramatic substance and as the story unwinds there is little to stir the soul other than Clare Machin’s standout performance in Change Don’t Come Easy where, as Huey’s hitherto racist mother, she sings of her shift towards tolerance and acceptance.

Memphis is unquestionably a fine West End treat of a show. With a sensational cast and first rate production values it makes for a grand and moving night at the theatre.

Now booking until 2015

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