Beverley Knight shows why she is the British soul queen in this foot-stomping crowd-pleaser
Richard-Barber-176Now here’s a surprise. We all know that Beverley Knight can raise the rafters with her ironlunged voice – not for nothing is she known as the British soul queen. And Killian Donnelly’s scene-stealing performance in The Commitments had already shown us he’s one to watch. But the title of this American import seemed to promise little more than a collection of rhythm and blues songs loosely strung together in a show long on volume, short on pretty much anything else.

How wrong can you be? Yes, the story can be summed up in a couple of brief sentences. Our hero, Huey Calhoun, is a poor white guy who first falls in love with what was known as ‘race music’ in one of the Beale Street clubs in 1950s Memphis, and then head over heels with its star turn, a young black singer called Felicia. But Tennessee’s strict segregation laws are pitted against this burgeoning romance.

Things are looking up, though, on the work front. Huey manages to wangle a slot on a local radio station, replacing the songs of Perry Como and Patti Page with R&B numbers like Everybody Wants To Be Black On A Saturday Night. When TV beckons, Huey once again hits the brick wall of racism. Lovely songs, say the producers, but those black dancers are going to have to be replaced by white substitutes for a national viewing audience.

So, will love conquer all? And must Felicia choose between her man and her career? In truth, the story doesn’t so much end as peter out. But there’s such an energy coming across those footlights in the terrific ensemble dancing and singing, that you can mostly forgive that.

Ms Knight is more of a singer than an actor, but she’s not half bad in the latter category, as anyone who saw her as Rachel Marron in the recent stage production of The Bodyguard will confirm. And the Irish-born Mr Donnelly is simply excellent on both counts, his Deep South accent firmly intact throughout.

Just one grumble. Whoever designed the pricey programme clearly has it in for anyone with less than 20:20 vision. The text is tiny, and printed in white on a black background except when it comes to the details of the cast and creative team. And then it’s printed in red on dark blue or maroon. Why?

At the Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2: 020-7379 5399,