Beverley Knight has been drafted in for the West End transfer of the Tony Award-winning Memphis. The producers have given her the lead role, and it’s a bloody shrewd bit of casting in a show that, one feels, might otherwise go either way: Knight’s got a weapons-grade set of pipes, but for my money, it’s the charisma she brings to the role that’s key to its success.
Memphis is a show very loosely based on the life of Daddy-O Dewey Philips, a manic Tennessee DJ from the 50s. Dewey becomes “Huey” – Huey Calhoun to be formal – an affable, if slightly dim, redneck who dresses like Kramer from Seinfeld and chirrups on endlessly about the benefits of so-called race music. In fact, so enamoured is he with the grooves coming out of Beale Street – and from Knight’s sultry Felicia Farrell, in particular – Calhoun risks life, limb and liberty by storming a local radio station, guerrilla-style, locking himself in the booth and playing a string of numbers by black artists.
As a result everyone loses their shit, but just before station chief Mr Simmons (Mark Roper) can get the fuzz to arrest Calhoun, a barrage of calls come in from switched-on white kids, desperate to hear more of the interloper’s dangerous music.
The plot’s an old one – it’s two parts The Buddy Holly Story and one part Wayne’s World – but that’s OK so long as the songs cut the mustard, which, by and large, they do. “Music of my Soul,” and “Big Love” stand out as the bigger, bluer numbers, but the score, co-composed by David Bryan, one of the founding members of Bon Jovi, never gets too raw. It’s fun, it’s memorable but, here’s the rub, it’s not cool. Stage schoolers doing the Blues is like watching Christians do rock: it’s all a bit wide-eyed and over-earnest.
Still, this isn’t Beale Street, it’s musical theatre, and on these terms Memphis soars – and in no small part this is down to Knight. She can act, she makes a decent fist of a Southern accent and she’s got a dazzlingly well-controlled and soulful voice. It’s a performance of energy and class and Knight exudes a likeable, down-to-earth persona.
It’s not all Knight, though. Killian Donnelly is in fine form as Huey, and Jason Pennycooke is a delight as Bobby, an aging studio caretaker by day who transforms into a right funky little bastard at night – in fact, come the second half, when he gets a slot on Huey’s TV programme, he comes perilously close to stealing the show. He doesn’t quite manage it, though – that’s Knight’s department.