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Million Dollar Quartet (review)

The West End cast of Million Dollar Quartet

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

ON DECEMBER 4, 1956, history was made when Sam Phillips, the legendary founder of Sun Records, brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

It’s that historic night at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, that Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s Million Dollar Quartet is currently recreating on the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, apart from the obvious catalogue of musical numbers – there are, after all, 22 in total, 23 if you count the reprise of Down by the Riverside – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it has something more to offer.

For it’s also the story of Sun Records (originally an auto parts store) and how Sam Phillips influenced the careers of these four extraordinary young men, played here by four relatively unknown actors.

As a long-time Elvis fan, I was particularly impressed by Michael Malarkey, who really manages to capture the essence of the young Elvis – only the disarmingly lopsided smile is missing. Yet I was saddened to learn that even so early in his career – he was by now under contract to RCA and managed by Tom Parker – there were signs of the frustrations that were to plague him in later life.

Derek Hagen’s Johnny Cash is as quiet, unassuming and charming as the man himself. Haunted by the death of his older brother, Jack, in a sawmill accident, there’s just a hint of the melancholy that was to have such a huge impact on his life. And his respect for Phillips is patently clear. Moreover, Hagen’s rendition of I Walk the Line is absolutely spot on.

The pre-Great Balls of Fire Jerry Lee is as exuberant and uninhibited as an excitable puppy but he knows his place – one word from Phillips and he retreats, tail between legs. I would image Ben Goddard has a great deal of fun playing him.

Perkins’ career, on the other hand, is in the doldrums and his initial animosity towards the young Jerry Lee provides many a droll moment. It’s also painfully obvious that he resents Presley’s association with Blue Suede Shoes, though who can blame him – it was, after all, his to begin with. So I just loved it when he finally lets his hair down (quite literally) and performs See You Later Alligator. And here, all credit must go to Robert Britton Lyons.

As Sam Phillips (and narrator), Bill Ward has dispensed with the menace of Coronation Street‘s Charlie Stubbs and replaced it with the confidence and amiability of a successful entrepreneur. While Francesca Jackson as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne (looking remarkably like the Juliet Prowse of GI Blues), provides a welcome female presence. And completing the cast are Gez Gerrard as Carl’s brother Jay Perkins (bass player) and Adam Riley as Fluke (drummer).

Million Dollar Quartet certainly delivers the goods. Not only is all the music in the production played live by the actors and musicians, it leaves you in no doubt as to the authenticity of that historic night. Moreover, the electrifying extended encore will have you dancing in the aisles. My advice then – don’t miss this engaging trip down memory lane to what was truly the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.

Read more about Million Dollar Quartet or view production photos or the rehearsal gallery