In conversation: Memphis The Musical

Published April 20, 2015

As theatrical treats go, indulging in afternoon tea at Rosewood London’s Mirror Room with Memphis The Musical’s insanely chatty Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly is up there. The cakes are incredible; the company is even better.

The word gregarious could have been invented to describe the performers, who play a rising black singer and the white DJ who wants to help make her a star in the Olivier Award-winning, 1950s Tennessee-set show.

They barely need prodding to begin revealing the secrets of Memphis’ success, and once they start there’s little stopping them. It’s easy to see where their electric on-stage chemistry comes from; it’s there as much sipping tea and nibbling petit fours in 21st century luxury as it is railing against discrimination and raising the roof in a segregated America. 

Once they get going, overlapping each other’s sentences with an ease and panache that belies the fact they’ve barely known each other a year, we can basically sit back, relax and let the Olivier Award nominees take us into the world of Memphis, from Knight’s sweet habit and the theatre’s all-inclusive atmosphere to performance details that neither knew about each other.

How are you finding the show six months in?

Donnelly: It’s amazing. We’re just so proud of the reaction it’s getting. I haven’t heard one negative comment. And what I love is people are going “I have to bring my family.” My brother, who doesn’t like musicals, I brought him to see it.

Knight: There seems to be something about Memphis that has got the ‘I don’t like musicals people’ to come along. My brother-in-law loves it. He’s Mr Grumpy who doesn’t like anything.

Donnelly: It appeals to everyone. The show genuinely feels about 45 minutes long. You hit the ground running and there’s energy, energy, energy and it zips by for everyone. It has a really strong story.

Knight: And that is what you follow. That’s what’s got you gripped.

Donnelly: If there was a blueprint of how to do a musical, Memphis would be it. The choreography is…

Knight: …Crazy

Donnelly: It’s out of this world.

Knight: It really was a team effort. And you can really see the team on stage. Everyone pulling together, everyone making sure that every element was covered. Everybody’s encouraging everybody. If one of the ensemble’s in for a role, everybody from every corner, even if they’re supposed to be in their dressing room, gets changed and is side of stage, in the wings, watching. Everyone’s cheering that person on.

Donnelly: I know it’s a cliché to say it’s a family atmosphere, but I’ve never experienced it before.

Knight: I’m the biggest child probably in the building.

Donnelly: She really is.

Knight: I wake up happy, go to sleep happy. I’m just a kid like that.

Donnelly: Friday she brings sweets. Big Tupperware boxes come in. We do our warm up and it’s “Oh, she brought Chewits”. Then two more boxes come for the front of house people. There’s usually a divide between cast and front of house. We’ve really tried to stop that. So we put on nights front of house after the show, where there’s free beer, free wine, free food. The Shaftesbury comes to it. Anyone who works at the Shaftesbury.

Knight: When you’ve got crew – these are blokey bloke bloke blokes – joining in the numbers and the dance routines, it’s game on. That’s how it’s been.

Donnelly: When you do a show there’s always the bit you have to get past, your tough bit. I would have said half way through my first act there’s a song called Radio. But, the ensemble are in it, there’s double Dutch skipping, and I look off stage and see Beverley doing the whole routine in the wings…

Knight: Do you see?! [intake of breath] I thought you were on the bridge so you couldn’t see.

What drew you to the show?

Knight: The script for me. I saw the script and thought, bloody brilliant this is.

Donnelly: It always starts with a story. Dealing with segregation and dealing with the facts that it talks about in the 1950s, that was so interesting to tell in a musical. It was done with such energy. There was something sexy and rock and roll about it. Then I looked up some of the songs on YouTube. I heard the song Memphis Lives In Me.

Knight: That song is crazy. I sing that song every night. You’re on the stage singing it. I’m half naked, changing, singing it.

Donnelly: Yeah! We should get that into the show. That would sell more tickets Bev.

Knight: Every night that song finishes me off. I cannot cope with that song.

Donnelly: It’s the blueprint of a perfectly structured song. Another thing about the songs that appealed to me was they fuelled the narrative. David Bryan has written it so beautifully.

What do you think each other bring to the production?

Donnelly: Beverley’s come in once or twice with a bit of a cold, but she sounds absolutely incredible and it makes everyone go “We really need to step up our game.” It’s such a wonderful thing to have when you’ve got that as a leading lady because then everyone brings their A game every night. There’s never any drama.

Knight: Killian made me want to really get this part right. I loved the songs and I knew I could sing the songs, but from the day he bounced into the audition I was like “My God, that guy is Huey.” Then you sang Memphis Lives In Me and I did not care about protocol, I didn’t care about what’s supposed to happen in an audition.

Donnelly: After I’d finished there was applause from Bev.

Knight: There was no way anyone else was going to be Huey apart from Killian. He has this infectious way of enthusing everyone and he does that throughout the whole building. Full of life, full of enthusiasm. And that fires everyone else up.

Donnelly: I think there was trust there from the start. Even in the audition. When an actor is nervous they’ll aim it away, or they’ll look up or down. Bev looked straight at me. Then the emotions just followed and wherever she went I’d go with.

Beverley, do you feel like a true stage actress now?

Knight: I feel like I’m watching this happen to somebody else.

Donnelly: In rehearsals you really had a background on Felicia off your own back. The research she did for Felicia and knowing she would probably wear this and she’d probably go down this street. She’s a fantastic actress. Phenomenal singer anyway. With acting you have to throw yourself in and make so many mistakes; it was so inspiring to watch.

Knight: I aspire to really get to where Killian and Jason [Pennycooke] and everyone who’s way more experienced than me, trying to get to their level. I could talk about the others all day.

Donnelly: Do you remember the read-through? We didn’t know all the songs, but on day one you open the script, and with 60 people sitting in a circle, with about 60 other people around, you just have to start reading the script. You don’t know all the songs, but they say sing it as best you can. We were told to mark the songs. Rolan Bell sings his heart out sitting down. We’re all looking at him thinking “We’ve all got to sing our hearts out now.” Then Tyrone Huntley just started singing Say A Prayer at the end of Act 1. It was incredible. From the end of that read-through we knew it was going to be special.

Another thing that’s so special is that the band is on stage… There’s a bit where I do a dance facing the trombonist. He always looks up at me and does a shoulder dance. It started off with him just nodding his head, now he choreographs it. The four brass are getting in on it. It’s like they’re texting each other “We’ll do this tonight.”

Knight: I am with all the lads for the whole of Scratch My Itch. We’re all getting down and I’m pretending to play the drums, play the brass, play everything.

Donnelly: I’ll tell you who’s going to be up for an Olivier for acting soon, our musical director Tim Sutton. He’s on stage and I have to shoo him off the piano at one point. All he’s meant to say is “Hey”. That Hey has turned into “Hey man I didn’t know you were going to get on the piano.” He’s writing his own monologues!

It sounds like a fantastic job. Could anything ever tempt you away?

Knight: I have to be sensible. Obviously albums and all of that must come, but the idea of doing anything else and having to leave Memphis. Oh God. That’s hard.

Donnelly: I know now I’ll never experience another show as special as Memphis. I care so much about it. I want it to be the best show. That’s true of every cast member and every crew member. It’s amazing when you see it from Beverley Knight to the guy playing trombone in the corner at the back, because he is giving it just as much as she is and that’s what makes it so special.

Knight: Everyone turns up ready to graft. All ego is left in the street. When everyone’s in the building, everybody’s ready to work, to rally round, to pull together, to make sure the show is the best show it can possibly be night after night. The vehicle we’ve got to work with is so phenomenal. We all know that the star of Memphis is Memphis.

Memphis The Musical is booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 31 October. You can book tickets through us here.

For more information about afternoon tea at Rosewood London visit the hotel’s website.

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