Memphis review - October 2014

A very worthwhile investment especially considering the otherworldly vocal talent from Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly.

Pre-Memphis, I was pretty taken in by all of the social media build up. I love a bit of Killian Donnelly (HIS VOICE...I mean…yep!) and I was impressed by how sassy Beverley Knight was during her turn as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard. I had also heard that the show was a relative success on Broadway. SO, despite knowing little about the plot and music, I was fully prepared to be wowed by the talent in the show. And wowed I was!

Inspired by a true story, the show is set in 1950’s Memphis Tennessee on the cusp of the Rhythm and Blues revolution but deeply amid times of racial tension. Huey Calhoun (Donnelly) frequents predominantly black music clubs and loves the sound so much he endeavours to be the first white DJ to play “black music” on the radio. Enter Felicia (Knight,) a beautiful singer that gets more than just Huey’s creative juices flowing!

Whilst the show is loosely based on a true story, writer Joe Dipietro has created an engaging and heartfelt story that generates some real sociological and racial questions that, whilst thankfully are much less tense in the modern day, are still somewhat applicable to the society in which we live. Some people still can’t marry who they want, some people still can’t be or do as they wish. Luckily the play’s message is positive, emitting a general message of love and acceptance, which is a welcome note indeed.

Donnelly and Knight show real chemistry as Huey and Felicia, despite their contrasting characters. Donnelly is hilarious as Huey, injecting the perfect blend of playfulness, naivety and determination. Conversely Knight brings a shy ferocity to the character of Felicia, that very much develops as the production continues, presenting herself and Huey as a wonderful blend of chalk and cheese. I honestly could not think of two better leads for this show and, by the sounds of previous cast recordings, they trump all other castings before them. Seriously – when they sing. Ahh!

The supporting cast were similarly great, with second act surprises from Claire Machin as Hughey’s mother Gladys and Rolan Bell as Felicia’s brother Delray. Jason Pennycooke was also stand out as Bobby and I loved that he got his moment to shine.

David Bryan of Bon Jovi brings some great sounds and interesting riffs to the Memphis score, although occasionally I found the lyrics slightly underwhelming but to be honest, that was quickly forgotten the second Knight or Donnelly opened their mouths!

Some critics could argue that the show glosses over lasting race issues with a song and dance number but I for one found the positive outlook of the piece uplifting; perhaps if we all could just sing and dance together, like in the show, the world would be a better place.

Overall the show gets a whopping great “Hockadoo!” of approval from me. It is classy, sassy and well executed; a worthwhile investment especially considering the otherworldly vocal talent from Knight and Donnelly.

Memphis London Review
23 October 2014, Shaftesbury Theatre