I knew nothing about Blues music, knew even less about its origins, and less than that about the New York production of Memphis which has just transferred to London. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I arrived at the theatre a breath before the first note of music sounded, with just time to throw my coat over the face of the enormous man next to me, and murmur ‘excuse me’ before I was embraced and engulfed by an explosion of light, music, colour, and beautiful people dancing in a way that proves God exists. It pulled me right out of my seat and into the world of the black clubs of Tennessee in the 1950s.
The deceptively simple plot revolves around one Huey, a young white man who falls in love with a beautiful black blues singer and commits himself to bringing her and her music into the American mainstream. The reason for his intense passion is subtly placed: it emerges that he can’t read or write. This point is not belaboured but we are allowed to make the connection that the music speaks the feelings he cannot write, and in the music he can read the story without needing words.
In Memphis, as in all good fairy tales, boy meets girl and music, boy loses girl and music, boy gets girl and music. It is the kind of story that makes space for music, for passion, even for violence and still has room for both the social point and the happy ending (kind of) it needs. The intertwining of musical and racial tension is extremely well done, and the reactions to Soul music, both as Black music and as a new kind of rhythm in American music (humorously exemplified by Perry Como) are very neatly and clearly expressed without underlining. Songs and dancing seemed to go on forever, bursting out of every moment.
I am being unfairly casual about the plot. ’It’s not in your soul’ says the heroine’s brother, ‘it can never be your music.’ The intense personal possessiveness that lies in the phrase ‘it’s in my soul’ is shown in the play to be impossible. Despite attempts to keep ‘their’ music for themselves, Memphis demonstrates that neither the soul nor the music has one colour. Black music cannot be for only for Black people as ‘White’ music cannot also be only for White people, just writing these words down shows their absurdity. Blues music was originally by and for Blacks but simply by being what it was it reached out to everyone – as it reached out to me.
Music, as the evening proved over and over, cannot be political. I very much liked the moment when materialism overcame racism because people liked Blues music and it sold records.
The production is as big and generous and passionate as the music, especially Beverley Knight as the heroine. She absolutely blazes with the kind of star quality that gives out a dazzling light and still holds that touch of mystery that keeps an audience hanging on to see what she will do next.
Killian Donnelly, as Huey, is funny and endearing as a man with no qualifications except his passion, as he rides with that we cannot help but will him forward. Actually, everyone is brilliant – it is only for lack of space that I don’t list every single name in the cast. They never let up with the heat, the pace, the life-affirming power of the music.
It seems to be a modern trend that standing ovations are given too freely, but on this occasion it was genuine, joyous acclaim; this was an evening that deserved it.
Review by Kate Beswick
Memphis The Musical
In the underground nightclubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, the soul of a new era is dawning as the first incredible sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and gospel are emerging into the mainstream.
Falling in love with a beautiful club singer, one young man’s vision to bring her voice and her music out of the clubs and onto the airwaves of America will fly in the face of cultural divides and spark a music revolution that will shake the world.
CAST: Beverley Knight as Felicia, Killian Donnelly as Huey, Rolan Bell as Delray, Claire Machin as Gladys, Jason Pennycooke as Bobby, Mark Roper as Mr. Simmons, Tyrone Huntley as Gator, Rachel John as Alternate Felicia, Jon Robyns as Alternate Huey.
ENSEMBLE: Keisha Atwell, Arielle Campbell, Mark Carroll, Joseph Davenport, Momar Diagne, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Kimmy Edwards, Hillary Elk, Laura Ellis, Charlotte Gorton, Benjamin Harrold, Waylon Jacobs, Dean Maynard, Devon Mckenzie-Smith, Tim Newman, Simon Ray Harvey, Ashley Rumble, Kyle Seeley, Helen Siveter, Dawnita Smith, Alex Thomas.
David Bryan – Music and Co-Lyrics, Joe Dipietro – Book and Co-Lyrics, Christopher Ashley – Director, Sergio Trujillo – Choreographer, Christopher Jahnke – Music Producer/Music Supervisor, David Gallo – Set Design, Paul Tazewell – Costume Design, Howell Binkley – Lighting Design, Gareth Owen – Sound Design, Daryl Waters – Co-Orchestrator, Shawn Sagady – Co-Projections Design, Charles G Lapointe – Hair And Wig Designer, Nick Finlow – UK Musical Supervisor, Tim Sutton – Musical Director, August Eriksmoen – Dance Arrangements, Steve Rankin – Fight Director, Pippa Ailion CDG – Casting Director, Stage Entertainment – General Management, Joe Public – Marketing Directors, Tara Wilkinsonuk – Associate Director, Edgar Godineaux – Associate Choreographer, Andrew D Edwards – UK Associate Set Designer, John Harrisuk – Associate Lighting Designer, Rory Powers – Associate Costume Designer, Hannah Bell – Costume Supervisor, Marcus Hall Props – Props Supervisor, Linda Mcknight – Wigs Supervisor, Andy Barnwell – Orchestral Manager, Gabriel Greene – Dramaturgist.
Memphis The Musical
Shaftesbury Theatre London
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 11+
Booking From: 9th October 2014
Booking Until: 28th March 2015