REVIEW: Memphis – Shaftesbury Theatre, London
Six months on and Memphis still has the audience rocking in the aisles. This story of the birth of rock and roll may appear on the outside to look like just another jukebox musical but in reality, with its uplifting book by Joe DiPietro and original score from Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s 1955 and poor white boy, local music fan turned DJ, Huey Calhoun is on an one man mission to bring “race music” to the masses in the segregated Deep South. Frequenting the black music clubs on Beale Street, Huey discovers singer Felicia and starts her on the road to success, but along the way Huey falls for Felicia and the pair’s relationship has to fight hard to survive in this racial hotbed.
A fictionalised account of a time in the US when barriers were beginning to be broken but with an establishment that still bolstered the barricades it manages to make its point without ramming it down your throat. There’s a helluva lot of sentimentality here but the message still gets through and to its credit, it manages to eschew the schmaltzy happy ever after ending whilst still managing to send you back onto the street on an emotional high.
The music is an on-period delight: there’s blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop and some heart-breaking ballads too.
There is an exuberant energy throughout and the cast look as if they are having the time of their lives, which then transmits throughout the auditorium (on the night I attended the audience were particularly enthused – so much so the cast felt the need to Tweet their appreciation after the curtain fell). They are also, undoubtedly, the strongest voiced ensemble on the West End stage at the moment – so much so that it feels like a wave of electricity hitting you as each number is performed. Brisk doesn’t describe the direction by Christopher Ashley, break-neck would be nearer the truth: the time goes by so quickly and the action moves at such a pace that you land back on the street exhausted and sightly stunned.
It is the principle pairing of Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly that makes this an absolute winner. Knight’s voice is truly outstanding and the power she manages to muster from her tiny frame is stunning, but it is Donnelly who really steals the show and the audience’s hearts. His charm and charisma as well as his comic timing and knock-out voice are a winning combination.
Like every other show it’s not without its faults but they’re few and far between and the sheer sense of joy it leaves you with is worth the price of a ticket any day.