Theatre Review: Memphis @ Shaftesbury Theatre

Against the backdrop of a turbulent cultural divide comes the powerful melting pot of soulful voices from the cast of Memphis.

Riffing on familiar themes of prejudice, championing the underdog, and the belief in the power of music, Memphis’ originality comes from its eclectic score.

Staged in the smoky halls and underground clubs of the segregated 1950s, Memphis explores the cultural revolution that erupted through Tennessee’s music scene.

The musical’s plot is loosely based on DJ Dewey Phillips, the first white DJ to play black music in southern America.

Struggling against society and driven by their ambition, leading couple Felicia Farrell (Beverley Knight) and DJ Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly) fight to give black music a mainstream voice and to keep their relationship alive.

As Felicia, Beverley Knight is the heroine we hoped she would be.

Every performance wowed us with her musical prowess and ability to sing everything the show threw at her from gospel and rhythm and blues to rock ‘n’ roll.

As a focused career woman battling deep-rooted prejudice, Knight is strong enough in her performance to make her final victory not only well deserved but completely believable.

Humour comes in the form of West End favourite, Killian Donnelly, as Calhoun.

His comedic timing provided necessary moments of relief to what might have been a very heavy and predictable story.

He is the loveable lost cause, determined to make something of himself and we are rooting for him and Felicia all the way.

Sometimes the leading couple overshadows the supporting characters; this is certainly not the case with the cast of Memphis.

The deep, gravelly tones of Felicia’s fiercely protective brother Delray (Rolan Bell), and Jason Pennycooke’s, who plays radio station’s janitor Bobby, James Brownesque vocals, prove they have just as much soul as the leads.

The ensemble provided essential energy to the show’s larger numbers and managed to execute a double pirouette without stumbling.

Costumes, unsurprisingly, were used to emphasise the show’s themes of segregation and prejudice, white actors wore light, sugary pastels, whereas black actors wore richer purples, emeralds and browns.

Instead of being tucked under the stage and forgotten about the band performed alongside the cast.

With a blazing score, composed by Joe DiPietro and Jon Bon Jovi founding member David Bryan, the musicians were more than a backing band, they performed a pivotal role, breathing life into its electrifying numbers.

Your feet can’t help but tap along to this infectious performance at the Shaftsbury Theatre.

A night out at the theatre is a chance to let go and have fun; which is why Memphis is the perfect remedy for beating those after work blues.

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Featured image courtesy of Johan Persson, with thanks

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