Review: Memphis the Musical (Shaftesbury Theatre, London)

Following a Tony Award-winning run on Broadway that ended in 2012, Memphis the Musical has made its way across to our shores.  With Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly leading the cast and solid score by David Bryan, is this going to be the hit of the West End this winter?

Memphis the Musical poster
Memphis the Musical

Set in Memphis during the 1950s, the story centres around Huey (Killian Donnelly) and his mission to become a radio DJ. Finding soulful singer Felicia (Beverley Knight) in an underground bar, he becomes besotted and commits to help her get her voice heard. The musical follows their rise to local fame, while exploring the racial conflicts of the time.

On paper the story is solid, and while the reality more than works, with enough to fill the 2 hours 20 minutes running time, it doesn’t have the depth that it thinks it does. Imagine Hairspray without the humour and subplots. It whips along at a great pace, but often feels like it’s missing key parts of vital scenes. Take the sudden leap into the future at the end – with no explanation or context, the finale feels tagged on and somewhat unbelievable.

Still there’s enough going on to keep it engaging – a racist mother played by Claire Machin, whose second act number brought the house down, Felicia’s over protective brother played by Rolan Bell, and comedic support by Tyrone Huntley as the mute barkeeper and Jason Pennycooke as the sassy janiter.

While the story may be basic, the same can’t be said for the soundtrack. There’s something incredibly uplifting and varied about David Bryan’s work in this. From the emotional ‘Colored Woman’ or ‘Memphis Lives in Me’ to rousing ensemble numbers like ‘Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll’ it’s catchy and tells the story well, so it’s a shame those songs aren’t supported by a better book.

Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly in Memphis (Photo by Johan Persson)
Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly in Memphis (Photo by Johan Persson)

It’s also safe to say that the score has never sounded better. While at times the acting doesn’t feel natural (although everyone in the cast really gives it their all) the musical performances are incredible. You can’t help but be bowled over by the vocal abilities of Knight and Donnelly. Knight particularly seemed to fill every crevice of the Shaftesbury with her voice. It was my first time hearing her live and it won’t be my last.

Aside from the story, the weakest element for me was the set and costume design. While the scenery was functional, it all looks a bit cheap. From the speckled floor that would be in keeping with a touring production in the 90s, to the wobbly staircases and dodgy projection, it leaves a lot to be desired. It does the job of telling the story, but I found myself wishing they’d either gone all out and spent more money on it (as per the Broadway version), or scaled it right back to let the story and music speak for itself. And the same can be said about the costumes, which often feel like rentals from the local fancy dress shop rather than west end quality.

The ensemble in Memphis (Photo by Johan Persson)
The ensemble in Memphis (Photo by Johan Persson)

Special mention on this one has to go to the choreography by Sergio Trujillo which doesn’t let up for the entire show. They’ve found a talented ensemble who really are given every opportunity to shine throughout. It’s bold, it’s energetic and along with the music, it’ll make you wish you were up there with them.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

A great choice for a fun night out. This really is a stellar cast giving it their absolute all to deliver a cracking score. But it’s let down by a weakly constructed story, and a naff-looking set which at times distracts from rather than supports the action. That said, Beverley Knight’s vocals are worth the ticket price alone.

Memphis the Musical is currently booking until 28th March 2015. Tickets can be purchased from the Shaftesbury Theatre website.

And the seat…

Grand circle, row D, seat 20. At £30 per ticket, this is a more than adequate view. Had no issues with sight lines (ignore the head of the lady in front – the view was unobscured once she sat back) and while you do feel slightly removed from the action being so high up, it’s a good budget option if you don’t want to pay stalls prices.

Shaftesbury theatre, grand circle row d20
Shaftesbury Theatre, Grand Circle Row D20

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