Performance Date: 27th May 2015
Location: Shaftesbury Theatre, London
Cast: Rachel John as Felicia Farrell, Jon Robyns as Huey Calhoun
After a poor choice of show last time my wife and I visited the West End (see my review of the stale Thriller), we were desperate to get it right this time. Visiting the West End is not a cheap experience, no matter where your seats are, and we wanted a feel-good show that would lift our spirits for the rest of the day. Memphis was the perfect choice and delivered on every promise the hype gave us.
The musical, set in 1955 Memphis, was written Joe DiPietro (book) and David Bryan (score). Huey Calhoun, a young white man from a poor family, is trying to make headway in the Memphis Beale Street clubs. He quickly becomes entranced by a young black singer named Felicia and they start a relationship, despite the protests from his mother and her brother. As his career leads him into being a DJ on a mainstream Memphis radio station, he becomes a champion of black R&B music and helps break it into the subconscious of the white masses. All is going well until their romance is halted by the devestating racial segregation rules of the state of Tennessee.
The plot itself feels slightly reminiscent of Hairspray, albeit from a more mature viewpoint. It elevates it above being a simple romantic tale by adding an element of period-based controversy in a way that just couldn’t be dealt with at the time. It’s a powerful piece of theatre and it was delivered perfectly by everyone involved.
In a way, this is all merely a platform for a huge amount of extremely powerful songs that blew me away throughout. The performance I saw was a Wednesday afternoon, meaning we didn’t see Beverley Knight. Instead, I was treated to the understudy Rachel John, who is destined to grow in popularity if the performance I saw and standing ovation are anything to go be. She has an amazing voice and, to be honest, I feel lucky to have seen her as she’s a perfect fit for the part. The usual male lead Killian Donnelly was also not present (he is soon to be replaced by Matt Cardle anyway), so we were able to catch Jon Robyns as the lead instead. Jon is, in my opinion, one of the West End’s most talented performers and he’s a perfect fit for this role. It’s a shame he’s slightly underused as an understudy but if you can work out when he’s on and get to see him you’ll understand why I’m singing his praises so much.
If you are yet to see Memphis, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a tough battle in the West End to get the tickets sold, but this should be on your “to watch” list if it isn’t already.