So….what’s the connection between Elvis Presley and Telford then? Read on!
It’s spooky how great music can make you feel nostalgic for an era you can’t possibly remember.
I was just four years old when, on the cold Tuesday night of December 4th 1956, four of the greatest rock and roll superstars ever, showed up together at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios in Memphis. Two of them, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, were intent on telling their producer they were resigning for greater things. Elvis Presley had already been sold (like a soccer star) to a bigger label and Jerry Lee Lewis was trying desperately to get himself a deal to record and release his first single ‘Great Balls of Fire’.
The four joshed and japed, exchanged jealousies, and then jammed … and at some point, it seems, a young recording engineer pressed record. There’s certainly an iconic black and white photo of them grouped around Presley at the piano…which, in a magical moment, is faithfully recreated on stage.
There’s no record of a playwright being present in the building that night to note down what was said. So the conversations are conjecture. But there was a helluva lot of career changing stuff going on in their lives at that time which writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have bundled up into one night of testy tensions and barely controlled egos.
To be honest, the music is ‘the thing’ and the show’s meaningful dialogue probably wouldn’t fill a record label. Which is a slight pity, because in the brief moments when they do get to be frank with each other the drama is highly effective, despite its chaotic chronology. There are some great lines too as Carl Perkins admits that “but for Sam Philips I’d be driving a truck”; whilst the others snigger at the fact he’s had his first success with a song about his shoes.
They each have their own private agenda. Carl Perkins is desperate for another hit. Cash wants the freedom to record his favourite religious anthems. Elvis rues the curse of the answered prayer. And Jerry Lee is like an un-sprung jack-in-a-box on heat, crowbarring his way to stardom. “I’m gonna be a star…or die trying.”
The calm, still, nasally voice of reason is their producer Sam Phillips. Jason Donovan knows showbiz inside out and there was a cosy ‘rightness’ about a man who’s been around the music world so long, portraying on stage a man whose wealth of experience launched so many careers. Philips comes across as smarmy and insincere … but also smart enough to get the best out of his wayward wards…urging them to “sing to me like you sing to Jesus” and illicitly engineering their futures.
He’s proud of what he’s done…too proud in fact to jump ship to RCA records. But there’s also a slump in his shoulders as, one by one, his fledgling fly the nest. He “just knew” his ambitions for his proteges would only be fulfilled at other studios; which is why he sold Elvis for forty thousand bucks and invested in a new venture called ‘Holiday Inn’ (who have a hotel in Telford).
The actor/musicians impressions of the big stars is uncanny in both voice and mannerisms. Ross William Wild plays Elvis with a wide stance and a hip-swinging guitar and attacks his hits with dangerous enthusiasm. Matthew Wycliffe’s lead guitar demonstrates what a fine and underrated musician Carl Perkins was. Ashley Carruthers really is a great ball of fire as Jerry Lee Lewis, recreating his outrageous antics at the piano (playing it with his foot and backwards hands), and Robbie Durham’s recreation of Johnny Cash (know, unexpectedly, in the business as ‘John’) is exceptional. And, to add a little glamour, Katie Ray raises the temperature with Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. Was she really having an affair with Elvis? I never knew that.
Most of the rest of the show, I did know. Especially the music. The characters seem all too aware of the transient nature of stardom and naively wonder if Rock and Roll will endure. But what they play is just as exciting 60 years on. And that’s largely why this show is such a huge success. A great idea … delivered with even greater gusto … on a bed of unforgettable music.
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