FringeReview UK 2017
Million Dollar Quartet arrives in Brighton with the most explosive blast of sheer music-making I can remember. Written by Colin Escott’s and Floyd Mutrux it doesn’t pretend to a plot so much as character revealed by playing. Everything depends on the performers. Ian Talbot knows when to speed up or let them for the most part unfold the story by sheer musicianship.
David Farley’s one-shack set with a recording studio at the back, functions as a soundbox. David Howe’s football stadia lights descending and delicate spotlights elsewhere; finally Ben Harrison’s sound separates the musical strands even up close.
Colin Escott’s and Floyd Mutrux’ Million Dollar Quartet arrives in Brighton with the most explosive blast of sheer music-making I can remember. It’s not a narrative like Sunny Afternoon, indeed its focus on December 4th 1956, the day four legends jammed in Sun Records’ shack, courtesy of founder Sam Phillips, doesn’t pretend to a plot so much as character revealed by playing. That’s the genius of the show. But everything depends on the performers. Ian Talbot knows when to speed up or let them for the most part unfold the story by sheer musicianship.
David Farley’s one-shack set with its gold disc stamped on the walls the only glitz, a recording studio at the back, functions as a soundbox. David Howe’s football stadia lights descending and delicate spotlights elsewhere; finally Ben Harrison’s stupefying sound in fact separates the musical strands even up close.
Briefly pioneer Phillips is hoping to re-sign Johnny Cash whose name he not only made.. but made up. Cash is grateful but Sun records can only take him so far, and refuses t record gospel (there’s crates of it unsold out back). He’s imminently due, but already here Matthew Wycliffe’s sardonic Carl Perkins whose Blue Suede Shoes needs a follow-up fast, and this kid with the piano. He’s unknown twenty-one-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis, whose cocky irreverence to everyone, even – well wait for it – irritates the C P out of Carl Perkins. Lewis is convinced he’ll bring the next hit to Sun.
Ashley Carruthers frankly beggars belief. His vocals and close imitation of Lewis’ voice is at least as good as the other three famous characters of theirs. More vocally taxing, certainly extreme in Great Balls of Fire (his soon-to-be hit, a little licence here), it’s his pianism from stride to jazz-inflected crescendos resembling Errol Garner on acid that recreate Lewis’ phenomenal technique, down to feet on the piano, lying on the upright with hands jabbing behind him, or more simply flicking glissandis back and forth through explosive Bartok-like percussions. He’s never heard of Charles Valentin Alkan, the pianist composer Liszt feared. Carruthers could blast him with gusto. More importantly, Carruthers projects the insufferable cockiness lustiness (we’ll see that soon) and braggadocio demanding an unstoppable energy and attack. Combining the characters’ hyper-activity with the real pianistic demands of him, is a tour-de-force of musical acting. One person said he’d make a fine Amadeus.
But most of all the sparring and near-disastrous confrontation between him and Wycliffe’s Perkins is musically the most satisfying of all. Perkins a fine guitarist can’t abide the first wild man of rock. But he doesn’t know that’s Lewis’ fate. What does occur over two hours is their gradual respect, their give-and-take musically and in the end close collaboration; they become in the space of less than an hour musical colleagues who jam together with frisson and edge.
Another stand-out has to be The King himself Ross William Wild layers and soft-pedals his entrance. Elvis Presley isn’t alone. He brings with him Dyanne, played by Katie Ray who has an ace up her throat. She can sing Fever with the best, and in two numbers nails her musical equality and nails the players to the wall in admiration. The way the others play around her is agitated, respectfully desirous and above all the collaboration of other musicians.
Wild’s gradual assumption of power is character-driven. Bashfully, and feeling fragile he wants Phillips to work with him at RCA, for whom he’s signed a year ago after Phillips sold him to save Sun. RCA want Phillips and Phillips as well as Cash has to make up his mind The difference is everyone but Phillips soon finds out Cash’s reluctant intentions. Wild’s swing into his great hits begins with one of those moments the paly manages well: a seamless flashback and spotlight to when Presley auditioned and had That’s all Right Mamma tweaked by Phillips and encouraged to find his voice. It’s what Cash and Perkins found – Phillips genius for discovering talent and then making the talents discover themselves. as brief backstory it’s illuminating. As a trajectory of Presley’s power it’s mapped into the show itself. Boosted by Ray’s Dyanne, he strides not singing, guitar-riffs of real power and pelvis-swinging that make his contribution outstanding, more nuanced and less relentless than Carruthers for character-driven reasons.
Johnny Cash the peacemaker who’s been lured by Presley’s imminent arrival is the peacemaker, and Robbie Durham paces his quiet smouldering self-doubt, guilt and gathering nuances of sadness particularly well. His final boiling-point with Lewis, he being the last to blow, sobers the other. ‘you’ve a world of talent but you could be crushed’ he warns him. Interacting with Ray and others in the lead-up to what he should do provides the dramatic tension alongside the musical narrative. His Walking the Line is magnificently done.
Peter Duncan’s idealistic tough-tender Phillips is more than up to conveying the melancholy at the heart of Philips’ eagerness. How this lays out between him and his protégés, and his gentle, quick-witted and amusedly downright demeanour only partially shrouds an aching idealism. The denouements you’ll need to see for yourself.
This is outstanding for is peerless characterising of the four legends with their unexpected female singer, the acting of Duncan and above al for the way the structure allows such extraordinary musicianship its head.