Theatre Review: Memphis

Date Posted: 24/10/2014

Killian Donnelly and Beverley Knight in Memphis

Memphis is now playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London's Theatreland. Sarah Holt reveals whether it rocked or simply rolled along.

If you’re coming to the musical Memphis cold, you’d be forgiven for thinking it could be something to do with Elvis, Johnny Cash, or – at a push – Cher.

But its connotative name does it a disservice. The latest musical to hit the West End is a theatrical new-born, with a completely original score, script and choreography.

Written by Joe DiPietro, with music in conjunction with Bon Jovi star David Bryan, Memphis is set in 1950s America; a time when racial segregation was still in place and when blues music, known as race music at the time, was breaking through to the masses.

The story revolves around the characters of Felicia – a young black soul singer who dreams of making it big despite the racial discrimination that was inherent at the time – and Huey – a white DJ who has a passion for black music and a mission to get it played on mainstream white music stations across America.

Huey meets Felicia when he takes the controversial decision to visit a music club where whites aren’t supposed to go. As soon as he meets her, he makes the promise to get her on the radio. Their taboo relationship unfolds from there.

At Memphis’s UK premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre, Beverly Knight made her debut as Felicia and Killian Donnelly played Huey. Both are fresh from successful roles in The Bodyguard and The Commitments.

There were high expectations in the audience as the curtain went up - Memphis has already been a huge success in America, where it was awarded five Tony Awards.

It didn’t take long for these expectations to be met, though, thanks to a firework of a first scene.

Memphis begins almost immediately with the big song and dance number Underground, which is characterised by Catherine wheel-colourful 1950s costumes, dirty dancing, and vocals so powerful that anyone pining for Memphis back in The States could have listened in.

And it’s really the costumes, dancing and vocals that make the show. The script has been crafted to take you on a big dipper ride – with high highs and tear-jerking lows. However, it’s not exactly a story that we haven’t seen before. Boy meets girl, boy isn’t really allowed to be with girl, boy and girl strive against the odds to be together – it’s something we’ve seen countless times in the likes of West Side Story and Grease et al.

The former-mentioned costumes, dancing and vocals, however, are unlike we’ve seen before.

Full circle skirts blitz the stage with brightness, and finishing touches like a shared swatch of fabric between two characters’ costumes covertly imply relationship status.

The dancers make the Duracell bunny look like a sofa loafer in terms of energy. While some of the aerial lifts wouldn’t look out of place in Cirque du Soleil.

And Beverly Knight sings the house down. During big numbers like Someday, you’d believe that Knight has bellows where her lungs should be.

Predictable plot line or not – this show is well worth a trip – and especially a group one – because it helps to have a pack of friends with you when you want to get up and dance in the aisles.    

Memphis is currently taking group bookings at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Tickets for groups of 10 or more cost £39.50 per person.

Cast of West End musical Memphis dancing

Photos credit: Johan Persson.

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