Theatre

Reviewed: Memphis

“The perfect modern day musical”

When Memphis opened on Broadway in 2009 it won four Tony Awards, including Best New Musical, suggesting that a UK transfer couldn’t be far behind. In the end it’s taken half a decade to see that happen – but my word, was it worth the wait.

London’s production of Memphis, now showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre, is the perfect modern day musical. First there’s David Bryan’s remarkable score, which cleverly balances uptempo moments with heartbreaking ballads to perfection; meanwhile Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is simply sumptuous – the ensemble are on form, hitting the ground running with opening number ‘Underground’ and barely catching a breath. Likewise, David Gallo’s stunning set glows, segueing from Delray’s club to the radio shack to Huey’s home in southern Memphis seamlessly.

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The story of Memphis follows wannabe disc jockey Huey Calhoun who is sick of hearing the same records playing out across his home state, and is struggling to bring black soul music to the masses, in particular the music of rising star Felicia, with whom he falls in love. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the show is as much about society’s fear of the unknown as it is about human nature and, ultimately, the acceptance of who we are. It manages these themes with touches of light and dark throughout, and there are both laugh out loud and tearjerker moments to be had here.

The cast are on fine form. Supporting roles, like Jason Pennycooke as Bobby and Claire Machin as Gladys, are worth the ticket price alone. In fact, this pair almost steal the show, particularly with their respective solo numbers: the glorious ‘Big Love’ and the hilarious ‘Change Don’t Come Easy’.

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Of course, for many the main draw will be the show’s leads, and rightfully so. Killian Donnelly, fresh from his critically-acclaimed turn in The Commitments, is wonderful here as Huey and switches from slapstick comedy gold to playing the heart-warming hero with aplomb. He really nails it vocally too, particularly in ensemble piece ‘Memphis Lives in Me’. Meanwhile, Beverley Knight, who plays Felicia, is fast becoming the West End’s brightest star and gives a shining performance in Memphis that suggests that she’s been treading the boards for years. It goes without saying that her voice is unmatchable, notably on such gorgeous numbers as ‘Colored Woman’, ‘Someday’ and the fantastic ‘Love Will Stand When All Else Falls’.

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In the end, Memphis is an uplifting tale about the joys that make us different and the wonders that make us fundamentally the same, and nothing is more evident of that than witnessing a packed theatre full of every age, race, creed and gender fully enraptured by the show in front of them. And rapture is exactly what Memphis does – quite simply, you must see this show.

Memphis is now showing at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London. You can buy tickets here.

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