The Million Dollar Quartet were the four stars of rock‘n’roll – Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley – thrown together one 4th December, 1956, for possibly the greatest jam session in history. The man who brought them together? The so-called father of rock‘n’roll, Sam Phillips, whose record label Sun Records produced some of the most famous sounds of the genre.
Ian Talbot’s production, based on a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, reconstructs that fateful night in all its charm and musical splendour, plunging the audience right into the former autocar shop, Phillips’s small Memphis studio. Eastenders actor and Spandau Ballet bass guitarist Martin Kemp leads the action as a drawling Sam Phillips, introducing each of his creations and explaining how from humble beginnings he nurtured and exposed the talent of the now-legends to the world.
As is usefully highlighted to the spectators from the outset, each note performed on the stage is created live. No recordings, no faking. Without this reminder it would have been easy to doubt, so effortless are the incarnations of the performers. Matthew Wycliffe delivers an impressive rendition of Carl Perkins’s Blue Suede Shoes (in fact his song, not Elvis’s), Robbie Durham nails the octave plunging and understated demeanour of Johnny Cash with Walk the Line, and Ross William Wild’s vibrato and hip winding is up there with the best of all Elvis impersonations on Hound Dog. But it’s Manchester-born Martin Kaye’s Jerry Lee Lewis that really lights up the stage, with an astounding ability to thrash at a piano seemingly carelessly, his leg shaking uncontrollably, while producing the most infectious of sounds on Great Balls of Fire. Kaye’s boyish charm and often misplaced banter are also the greatest source of humour. With an unfortunate but possibly can’t be helped gender unbalance, Katie Ray does right by her sex with a red-hot performance of Fever as the only female character, Dyanne.
As a piece of drama, the sole location of the interior and exterior of the recording studio is a bit static, and the dialogue could be more enlivening throughout, only at times truly revealing something of our infamous characters or the age-old battle of corporate versus indie music makers that flows as an undercurrent to the story: “Rock‘n’roll isn’t a fad – it’s a revolution!” But first and foremost, this is a showcase of the best of rock‘n’roll – That’s All Right, Sixteen Tons, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Who Do You Love?, Matchbox, Folsom Prison Blues, included – authentically performed to the highest standard by an immensely talented cast. Managing to transport the UK audience four thousand miles away, 60 years back, to a night where music history was made, there wasn’t a single spectator left seated by the epic finale of this ultimate tribute gig.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 21st December 2016.
Million Dollar Quartet is at Royal Festival Hall from 17th December 2016 until 2nd January 2017. Book your tickets here.
Watch the trailer for Million Dollar Quartet here: