Firstly credit to my friend Jen for getting up at an ungodly hour, and braving a slightly scary day seat queue for this one.
I’ve seen Memphis twice now, once in New York and again in London. Both times I confess it was really to see the leading man (Adam Pascal and Killian Donnelly respectively) but both times I’ve been really surprised at how much I like the show.
Memphis, if I were to describe it, is a darker, more adult Hairspray (interestingly this was the last thing I saw at the Shaftsbury in London too) It deals with many of the same themes, from a similar era. But Memphis has a darker edge, and it’s central characters are older, their experiences less sunny, the outcome also less cheery. Perhaps it’s because I’m a cynical grown-up I actually prefer Memphis’ take on race-relations in America.
Taking place in, funnily enough, Memphis, the story centres on Huey, an somewhat unsuccessful and unlucky young white man, who has a passion for ‘black music’. Huey breaks convention to go to Black clubs, and then defy authority to play what his boss calls ‘race music’ in a department store, and is subsequently fired. Huey goes on to blag his way into a radio station, and through playing ‘race music’ becomes the most successful radio DJ in Memphis. In the process he is forming a relationship with (black) club singer Felicia. Their relationship against the backdrop of the 1950s South, ends up having serious consequences for everyone. And without giving everything away, Memphis doesn’t end on a fairytale ending.
When I first saw Memphis I appreciated this honesty of depiction. That the white boy couldn’t just sweep a black girl off her feet and live happily ever after. As a historical piece that would be a betrayal, and tragically as it turned out just this week, even in contemporary America these themes resonate. I don’t want to dwell on these issues here, partly because such discussions deserve their own space. But in a week where Black Americans were murdered in cold blood, in 2015, the attitudes, the dangers, that Memphis shows a glimpse of, are still so tragically not far away. That’s why I appreciate that Memphis doesn’t gloss over these elements, and that it also doesn’t make things easy for it’s characters. I’m not claiming it’s a hard hitting political drama, but if anything Memphis shows that a piece of theatre doesn’t have to be that in order to still have resonance and truth.
History and politics slightly to one side, Memphis is also a well put together piece of theatre. Musically it’s not the strongest new piece of recent years, but the score is solid, inspired by Blues and Rock and Roll, it sounds very much of the era it is set. Personally I’d have preferred more balance between leading man and leading lady numbers, with it being weighted in favour of the latter.
The best part of Memphis for me remains the reason I bought a ticket: Killian Donnelly. My theatre nerds will appreciate when I say there are those times, those shows where you just go and fall in love with an actor. Not their character, not them as a real person, just them as a performer. Sometimes there’s just that extra bit of theatrical magic when everything falls into place. He’s an actor who was born for musicals, and not only is his voice glorious, he has that particular musical theatre acting skill that’s rarer than you’d think. It’s the kind of performance that makes you just fall for an actor’s talent regardless of the type of role. I’d urge anyone who can to see Memphis before he leaves in a few weeks. Or failing that Kinky Boots later in summer. An actor whose talents that I’ll long be admiring. And yes, ok, fact that he’s a tall, bearded Irishman is doing him no harm at all.
Memphis is a great smaller musical with a serious edge. It’s ensemble is excellent and hardworking and everything from staging to choreography is slick but not overbearing. And although I’ve urged anyone thinking of going to see Donnelly before he leaves, if that’s not possible head to an understudy performance- some true musical theatre talent in Jon Robyns and Rachel John as well.
Here’s a sneak peak of ‘Memphis Lives in Me’