In 1950s Memphis wannabe taste-maker Huey Calhoun (Killian Donnelly) enters the underground world of soul and rhythm and blues music when he sets foot into a club that he’s been desperate to go to. Initially the reaction to having a white man in club predominantly frequented by black people is mixed and Huey’s welcome is less than warm. He isn’t bothered though and stays to watch rising singer Felicia (Beverley Knight) perform. Blown away by her, and her voice, Huey vows to get her on the radio and enable her music to be heard by the masses.
Memphis The Musical is an exploration of what the world was like in the 50s when there was still separation based on race. For the purposes of Memphis it’s a world on the verge of changing with a man like Huey embracing music and life for what it is rather than seeing colours. It’s established early on that Huey is a bit of a chancer and his tendency to go against the wishes of anyone (and everyone!) – his own mother included – is what gets him noticed and ultimately he kickstarts the acceptance of ‘black music’ on the mainstream radio.
As Huey’s rise to stardom quickly gathers pace, his relationship with Felicia begins to blossom. At first she is reluctant to be involved with him in any capacity believing that the lack of acceptance from Memphis in general about inter-racial relationships means they can’t be together. This creates a conflict because Huey doesn’t care about what other people think whereas Felicia, used to being judged by her skin colour, wants to avoid trouble at any cost. Ultimately Felicia is proven right and there’s a brutal scene towards the end of the first act that packs an emotional punch despite being wholly expected.
At the heart of Memphis The Musical is a cast that is so strong in every aspect that you can help but be taken along for the ride. Any worries that you may have about a popstar being involved will be dealt with immediately as you realise that Beverley Knight has the abilities to carry a show. Vocally she’s spot on throughout the show and she hits notes that you wouldn’t believe possible in a live performance. Acting wise Beverley proves herself too. As Felicia she’s sassy, feisty but also vulnerable and we were really impressed.
Killian Donnelly, the show’s male lead, is the finest thing about the show. We had previously seen him in The Commitments he was easily the best thing about the show. In Memphis he has competition as everyone pretty much matches him but Killian has this irresistible twinkle in his eye and a knack for playing roles with gusto, conviction and heart. His performance as Huey is no exception and its credit to him, and Beverley, that their fledgling romance gives the show a whole lot of heart and a surprising emotional backbone.
The show’s success doesn’t lie solely with the performances of Beverley and Killian. The supporting players prove to be scene stealers throughout the show. Jason Pennycooke as Bobby brings laughter and lightness to the show, Tyrone Huntley as barely-vocal Gator pulls out one of the show’s jaw-dropping moments and Claire Machin as Huey’s mother Gladys brings to a life an under-written role with impressive conviction.
Memphis The Musical would have received a 5 star review from us if it wasn’t for one thing. The final minutes of the second act feel incredibly rushed and the show ends before you expect it. Without giving too much away time moves on but there’s things unresolved, particularly around Felicia and Huey, that we would have liked to see tackled and dealt with. Maybe it’s to do with time restraints or perhaps its meant to be ambiguous but we felt it was rushed and that’s a real shame. We also felt a bit disappointed that Gladys and Felicia never shared any kind of scene where Gladys tried to make amends for her awful treatment of Felicia, and attitude towards black people.
Memphis The Musical is a real treat of a show. Our expectations weren’t high when we went in but it blew our socks off. The mix of incredible music, remarkable performances and a mostly strong storyline is refreshing. The West End is getting too bogged down with stunt casting and shows that interject the hits of a legendary artist or are based on movies. Memphis The Musical is the kind of show that can run for years and years but take our advice and see it whilst Beverley and Killian are in the lead roles. We can guarantee you haven’t seen anything on the West End to this standard in a very long time.
Take a look at the showreel for Memphis The Musical below: