Memphis! is one of the musicals that has taken the West End by storm in the last year, and I am so glad I had the pleasure of watching it on Saturday the 5th of September.
Going into London is always an adventure these days, remembering the old paths I used to walk regularly and trying to recall where every west end theatre is positioned. Heading to the Shaftesbury Theatre was definitely an experience, stepping into the USA and feeling like I belonged in a true musical revolution.
Memphis takes place in a time we all know as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1950s when one radio DJ dared to feature black music in his show and changed the face of music in America and the world beyond.
Beverly Knight embodies the character of Felicia Farrell and does she do her justice. Knight, known as the British queen of soul hits every note without hesitation and provokes vibrations and goose bumps in all audience members. Delivering that southern american twang simply beautifully, she delved into her inner soul sister and rendered a flawless performance of the character she is given, not to mention the songs. However, I do have a slight problem with Felicia Farrell.
I waited a whole 2 hours to watch this woman do something about her life! As a complete sucker for strong female characters, when we are first introduced to Felicia Farrell I was convinced she would be the driving force of the entire show, the one that would dictate the action and in a certain way she is, but only by the men that veered her career. Felicia is the gift of the whole story, she has the incredible voice and the true talent to become a star, but under the constant mis-management from both her lover Huey and brother Delray, it takes her until the end of the show to achieve the recording dream. Furthermore, she only gets there because the one time she was given a choice by her brother to stay and fight for her relationship and love life or leave and get a recording contract and escape the difficulties, she fled. It is a difficult character to reason with for me, because although all these things seem shallow – yes we all have big dreams of love and romance, I do too! – when presented with the opportunity to possibly escape the scrutiny of a race haters, Felicia chose well and in her REAL LIFE position, we would have all done the same. But she is suppose to be a theatre heroine, a strong example of power and correctness, and she even fails in protecting her own friends. I feel the writers here didn’t do Felicia justice, and could have really given her a strong role to play a revolutionary role even. Still, as I said, Knight does the absolute best with the character she is given within the limiting dimensions of a damsel in distress, much more, a damsel in distress and under racist attacks.
Moving on! Matt Cardle, an X Factor winner, and born to be a musical actor not a recording artist. Where did all that sass, american-ness and performance skills come from? From a boy who at auditions only sang in his eyes closed and looked like he was going to cry every five seconds? Hell, he made the nation shed a tear every high note! A truly talented singer proves to be much more than just a kid with a voice, he is a man with a true skill.
Aside from a truly remarkable performance, what have we got in terms of the character Huey Callhoun? After some time getting over his truly irritating habits, everyone is able to see that he is a very loveable, caring and open minded man, and in all his ignorance he is the beauty of the play. Yes, through the trudges of trying to expose the world to true rock ‘n’ roll he makes some mistakes, but he is the driving force of the entire play. Making a small change in Memphis which leads to a national outbreak of music, Huey Callhoun lost his status and love to protect his friends and make sure their voices were heard.
And this is why Felicia really gets on my nerves, is that the writers had the AUDACITY of making her say such a thing as ‘You think you’re more black than me?!’ no Felicia, this is not the case at all. The problem is, as much as the white man instigated the movement, writer should have been able to demonstrate that the community didn’t just sit and wait for it to happen either. I understand that at the time, yes it is very correct that the movement had to be supported and pushed forward with white people supporting it. However, this is theatre, give your truly important and potentially great characters a chance to live with history would not have permitted them to. So take a page from Hairspray! As much as Tracey did what she did, Mamma Morton was the true driving force and leading lady of the whole thing. Give Felicia a chance to prove she is the next Mamma Morton! She has the pipes for goodness sake!
I have to say though, the writing in general, regardless of ill creation of characters, cannot be flawed. The lyrics and book are beautifully written, with puns WRNB being my absolute favourite one – watch the show and you will know! – you could not have asked for a better written script in terms of the words itself. It is elegant and down right dirty when it needs to, it is filled with delicacies and colloquialisms, it is simply inspirational for us aspiring writers especially.
A true feel good musical at its core, it is not about the love succeeding but the music and movement itself! And it does, so mightily succeed. As much as I flaw a few aspects of it, do bear in mind I am only one voice in THOUSANDS if not millions who have watched Memphis. I would watch it again, because I left the Shaftesbury Theatre, on a Saturday afternoon, feeling that whatever ill is thrown in our direction in this World, no matter how long it takes it will be overcome by what is correct.