Review: Memphis

It’s been a few days now since I’ve seen Memphis and I have to admit that a sense of dread comes over me with every thought of having to write this piece. This is not because Memphis is bad. In fact, it is probably the best musical I have seen this year. This dread does not stem from laziness either.

MEMPHIS by Dipietro, , Writer - Joe Dipietro, Music - David Bryan, Director - Christopher Ashley, Choreography - Sergio Trujillo, Design - David Gallo, Lighting - Howell Binkley, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, UK, 2015, Credit - Johan Persson -

Actually, having seen Memphis I want to tell as many people to see it in as many formats as humanly possible. The reason for my rut is because Memphis is not a musical to be taken at face value. This intricately woven and deeply relatable tale has a multitude of perspectives, which have a multitude of differing outcomes.

Currently on display at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, Memphis in in its fourteenth year, having made the transition from Broadway in 2014. Loosely based off the life story of Dewey Phillips, Memphis features an out of luck disk jockey who played the music of black artists in the 1950’s.

MEMPHIS by Dipietro, , Writer - Joe Dipietro, Music - David Bryan, Director - Christopher Ashley, Choreography - Sergio Trujillo, Design - David Gallo, Lighting - Howell Binkley, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, UK, 2015,
MEMPHIS by Dipietro, , Writer – Joe Dipietro, Music – David Bryan, Director – Christopher Ashley, Choreography – Sergio Trujillo, Design – David Gallo, Lighting – Howell Binkley, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, UK, 2015,

The story features around two main characters, Felicia and Huey who are played by Beverley Knight and Matt Cardle respectively. Felicia is a black, underground singer in her brothers bar, saving up for her big break when Huey, an out of work white man comes into the bar. The following tale is one of their parallel lives coming together and how it affects their rise to fame.

Many would argue that it is a very traditional Musical since the themes of love and loss are the prevalent and largest overarching tropes featured in Memphis. However, this would be arguing the more important or at least deeper rooted themes of racial equality, appropriation verses assimilation and fair representation are not as noticeable or do not shape the musical in the same way.

Firstly, Memphis is excellent. I do not say this to hype or somehow promote the musical as a fan or some long lost employee. In fact, four Tony awards would support this claim and watching Memphis play out in front of your eyes, you too may want to give it an award of your own.

Memphis also seems to draw all sorts of audiences. Around me I see singles on dates and couples on double dates, which is no surprise since the tagline for the musical is “an original story of love, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.” So was I surprised to see groups of friends and colleagues take their seats for the evening? Well, no.

Memphis may have the gooey, icky and perhaps even to some, the pandering word of ‘love’ in its tagline, but it also features a phrase that is synonymous with raunchy, rebellious fun; ‘Rock and Roll’. So to exclude this excellent musical from your list of ‘must see musicals’ because you have nobody to warm your bed at night would only serve as a detriment to yourself and perhaps a few friends and colleagues too.

The night I attended was the night Matt Cardle, previous X factor winner and sell out tour frontman. I felt this was a fitting addition to the line up as Beverly Knight, the lead actress, platinum album and sell out tour front woman of her own solo career needed a big name to join her on the posters.

Of course, with the experience the new leading pair has brought, Memphis can only be seen as a stronger unit that what it was before.

Yet this fact isn’t one that needs to be said. Having been in successful for over ten years, Memphis has always been a strong show and the four Tony awards can attest to that. If anything, I feel like Matt Cardle’s introduction is just proof that no matter how good something can be, you should always strive to make it better and in that regard, I wish Memphis the best in future.

Nonetheless, there is a blatant truth I have tried to skim around in this review. The ‘elephant in the room.’ The truth is, having been around for fourteen years, there is nothing I can add to the mention of Memphis as a production from a traditional reviewers perspective. But in watching Memphis, I realised that there was more to it than just watching it as a production.

This realisation stemmed from being a person of colour and one who is critical of the media. So what did Memphis do? Well it surprised me. Memphis allowed me to witness not only an excellently put together production be performed, but also the statement it began to make also.

First of all, Memphis features a beautifully diverse cast with a fair representation of both black and white actors and actresses with varying roles of importance, thus fairly reflecting that of society. The writing staff has also gone the extra mile to do more than just include black faces, but to depict these darker faces well too.

Although Memphis does play on some black stereotypes such as being able to dance well and having a sense of rhythm, it is done in a way that feels relevant to the musical and the historical context of 1951.

Secondly, even within conversations between the black and white characters, the distinguishing feature is not how they talk, but what each character stands for and their compulsions.

This is a strong distinguishing feature from other productions that are only trying to be diverse for diversities sake who end up retrofitting all black people to either being unintelligent or evil. Instead, Memphis depicts people of colour fairly, with each character having a varying level of trust, moral convictions, faith, optimism and ruthlessness and does the same for the white characters too.

This allows the characters to feature in a believable set with a developing storyline that makes sense.
For example, the notion of a steamy interracial love story was not one both sides wished to accept in the beginning. Not even one of the people in the relationship wanted it at first. This is because the characters have been written to reflect and react to the social climate of their time. The legal complications and social rift such a union would cause is acknowledged rather than sold to the audience as some sort of gateway out of the ghetto for the Felicia and her friends.

Despite the notion of a steamy interracial love story, the characters have been written in a way that initially fight this union then create a tentative acceptance towards the end because the relationship comes with danger, both legally and socially. Again, stepping away from the idea this interracial union is somehow an upgrade for the black characters and their gateway into stardom and success.

However, the biggest and most noticeable plus point I can give Memphis from the perspective of colour is the fact that it recognised what cultural appropriation is. During one scene between Delray, Felicia’s older brother and Huey, Delray exposes that the reason he is hesitant to accept Huey into his group is because he not only believes that he will take advantage of his talented younger sister, but ‘steal’ their music as a means to make it towards his own fame. This scene made me sit upright as it is still a caution and an argument we have today in Hip-Hop and Rap music, which essentially showed me that many of the social struggles black people have experienced since the 50’s, continue to happen today.

Perhaps it is why I found Memphis so uplifting. Between the positive images and catchy songs that made me feel like being black was good, I also felt that being black was something worthy of respect. In acknowledging our historical and civil socials, Memphis; written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, reminded me that although being black is tough, there is nothing to be ashamed of and at the end of it all, people are either going to want to be you, or use something of yours they do not have.

I do not recommend Memphis simply for its positive black image, nor do I recommend Memphis for its award winning past. Instead, I propose you see Memphis because not only is it excellently cast, written, constructed and performed but also because it has the rare ability to make you feel good, despite all the hardship you may have endured for something you cannot change: Being who and what you are.

Memphis is on display at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, with Matt Cardle being part of the cast till October 18thbeverley knight matt cardle memphis review