REVIEW: Memphis, Shaftesbury Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Killian Donnelly and Beverley Knight in Memphis. Photo: Johan Persson
Killian Donnelly and Beverley Knight in Memphis. Photo: Johan Persson

Memphis – The Musical
Shaftesbury Theatre
4 stars

Set in 1955 in the city after which it is named, Memphis on the surface appears to be a jukebox musical, but look more closely and you’ll find it is far more than that.

Huey Calhoun is your run of the mill white guy, who is drawn to the rhythm and blues of the clubs in Beale Street, Memphis. It is here he meets Felicia, a young black singer and decides to make her a star – a task that isn’t that easy given the racial prejudices of the time. In an effort to make her a star, Calhoun begins a journey that sees him go from record salesman in a department store to radio dj to TV host. Ultimately, Calhoun’s ego and his arrogant stance towards the segregationist world around him corrupts his relationship with Felicia, and she has to choose between her career and Calhoun.

As Calhoun, Killian Donnelly is a revelation. There are moments when it feels like Donnelly is channelling the late-great dj Kenny Everett. His mania, energy and sheer talent explodes off the stage driven by some of the finest rock vocals that I have ever heard in musical theatre.

Beverley Knight plays Felicia and her charisma and vocal prowess sizzles. Her onstage scenes with Donnelly take Memphis to a whole new level.

Composer David Bryan of Bon Jovi fame has taken Memphis beyond being a jukebox musical by crafting songs that capture the mood and sound of the period whilst being completely original and almost instantly classic in their own right.

Memphis is a musical on a mission, there are no slow moments in this rollercoaster of a show. Momentum is everything and Director Christopher Ashley has the audience on their feet by the end of the show screaming for more.

If Memphis has one weakness, it is that of its book. The script for Memphis is a little bit light on substance for my liking. I just can’t help but wonder if Memphis would pack a bit more of a punch if the drama of the piece were ramped up a notch.

That said, if a great night in the theatre is what you are after Memphis will not disappoint.


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