Tuesday 14 October 2014

Memphis @ The Shaftesbury Theatre

Beverley Knight was never given the credit she deserved as a popstar. She has one of the best voices in the UK but until recently it's gone largely under-appreciated. However, it seems she has found a new home on the West End stage, with Memphis following an impressive run in The Bodyguard. Now, finally, she is coming into her own as a performer: a consummate actor, her vocals are monumental as she riffs and growls like you wouldn't believe. How is that voice coming from such a tiny body?

In short Beverley Knight is a sensation.

Thankfully she's backed up by a stellar cast in this production that narrates the tale of black club singer Felicia (Knight) in 1950s Memphis who becomes a star with the aid of hapless white radio presenter Huey (Killian Donnelly). Donnelly’s piercing vocals may not have the same richness of tone as those of his fellow cast members (namely Tyrone Huntley as Gator and Jason Pennycooke as Bobby), but his passion is palpable. As an ensemble, the whole cast create a formidable sound.

Their singing is accompanied by a sometimes on-stage band playing a rousing score that combines rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and gospel, as written by Bon Jovi co-founder David Bryan. Though full of soul and groove, the score is more a vehicle for the performers’ talents: just catchy enough whilst allowing the singers to freely play with the melodies. It’s not until the final number that we are really given a memorable tune.

The narrative, too, takes a backseat to the music. This is a story of racial integration that tackles its issues head on – mainly the inclusion of both black and white performers on the radio and on the television. The comparisons to Hairspray are obvious, but where that show Disney-fied its story somewhat (albeit with catchier songs), Memphis doesn’t shy away from showing abuse. Still, the focus is black dependency on the white man rather than veritable racial freedom – but then, that’s history.

It’s the performers and the production that truly bring this sexy, exuberant show to life from book to stage. The set design (David Gallo) remains clear despite plenty of moving parts and changes; the spectacular choreography (Sergio Trujillo) is energetically performed (skipping rope aside); and the singing is amongst the best you’ll hear on the West End stage.

And then there’s Beverley…


Watch: Memphis runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until March 2015.

Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre.