Million Dollar Quartet

Nov 1 2016 | By More

★★★★☆  Highly entertaining

Festival Theatre: Mon 31 Oct – Sat 5 Nov 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin

Pulsating and vibrant, Million Dollar Quartet provides a pleasing, high-tempo fictionalised account of one of the great jam sessions in the history of Rock’n’Roll.

The place was the Sun records studio in Memphis, it was December 1956 and Elvis dropped by to listen in on a Carl Perkins session – with new-lad Jerry Lee Lewis on keys. Oh, and Johnny Cash with there as well. A million dollar quartet, indeed, as canny Sun boss Sam Phillips called it when he phoned the press.

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo Darren Bell

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo Darren Bell

As a peg to hang a jukebox musical upon, this is far from being the most slender. No matter that the only facts remaining in Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s book are who the main participants were and one or two of the numbers sung. They provide a strong enough frame to paint a bigger picture of the Sun stable and celebrate the raw power of the music it spawned.

The show is marshalled by Jason Donovan as Sam Phillips who, in this reality, has brought the four together as something of a pretext to get Cash into the studio and tie him down to a three year extension of his contract.

On the way, each of the four gets to bust out one of their signature tunes, while Phillips drops in a memory of how they first appeared in his studio – normally with the back-story of how no one else would give them the time to record.

That this works so well is largely down to the adrenaline of the musical performances. It helps that director Ian Talbot brings out solid acting from everyone on stage so you never stop believing that this is a recording studio. The production values are convincing too, notably in David Farley’s precisely observed costume design – right down to Phillips’ tie pin.

No slouch on stage

Donovan’s Phillips is rather older and more world-weary than the reality. He fits easily enough though, as the show concertinas a whole history into this one afternoon. Donovan is no slouch on stage, getting both the regret of losing his acts to bigger studios – Elvis had gone to RCA a year before – and the thrill of finding new ones.

Martin Kaye. Photo Darren Bell

Martin Kaye. Photo Darren Bell

If Donovan doesn’t get to sing much – and then only backing vocals on the obligatory (and very welcome) encores – he has a quintet of young musicians to do the honours.

They are led, on several levels, by Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis. The script brings Jerry Lee to the fore, his massive ego and garrulous nature pushing the plot forward as he gets right under the skin of the underperforming Carl Perkins (who was trying to find a follow-up to Blue Suede Shoes).

Kaye busts Lewis’s moves from his brash, lightening fingered piano playing right down to his nervous energy and his incessant foot stomping along to the tune. He is always on the edge of the stage, a loose canon ready to go off with some acerbic comment. Never once does Kaye look jaded, although he is entering his fifth year of performing the role, having come straight over from the US tour, and performing in Vegas.

Matthew Wycliffe gives more nervous energy to Carl Perkins and in so doing, helps considerably in driving the plot forward. Strangely for a jukebox musical, the subjects of the songs are pretty immaterial – except once, when Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne hits out with I Hear You Knocking as a riposte to Lewis’s advances. Instead, it is the dynamics of their performances which tells the story of the evolving relationships between the characters.


Robbie Durham’s Johnny Cash is as laid back as you might expect – solid rather than extrovert. There is no doubting Durham’s vocal ability, however, as his voice plunges down into those delicious lower notes and then just drops even further into open-throated growl territory.

Katie Ray with Robbie Durham and Matthew Wycliffe. Photo Darren Bell

Katie Ray with Robbie Durham and Matthew Wycliffe. Photo Darren Bell

Ross William Wild puts in a decent enough Elvis, not going too hard for an over-the-top impersonation, instead relying on his voice to do his talking. Which is actually much more appropriate, for a singer home to see his old buddies and doubting the support he was getting at RCA.

The fifth person in that quintet of singers is Katie Ray. In reality, the girlfriend Elvis brought along was a dancer, but Ray’s appearance as the singer, Dyanne, makes sense in musical terms. Her rendition of Fever is an early highlight of the show.

Ben Cullingworth is solid behind the drums while James Swinnerton really makes his double bass sing. His solos are definite high-points, although modern amplification means that the acoustic dynamic of his performance is a lot fuller and more throbbing than the one which would have been experienced 60 years ago.

There is a nod to the real session with a great version of Down by the Riverside but, for the main part, this is a celebratory marriage of gig and history lesson, all rolled into one. And none-the-worse for it.

Running time: 2 hours (including one interval).
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Monday 31 October  – Saturday 5 November 2016
Evenings: 7.30 pm
Matinees Thurs & Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets from:

Million Dollar Quartet UK Tour website:

The Broadway cast recording and the recording of the historical session are available on Amazon. Click images below for links:

Million Dollar Quartet on tour:
31 Oct – 5 Nov Edinburgh
Festival Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
7 – 12 Nov Leeds
Grand Theatre
0844 848 2700 Book online
14 – 19 Nov Glasgow
King’s Theatre
0844 871 7648 Book online
22 – 26 Nov Southampton
02380 711811 Book online
28 Nov – 3 Dec Bristol
0844 871 3012 Book online
17 Dec 2016 – 2 Jan 2017 London
Royal Festival Hall
0207 960 4200 Book online
6 – 11 Feb London
Richmond Theatre
0844 871 7651 Book online
13 – 18 Feb Liverpool
0844 871 3017 Book online
20 – 25 Feb Dublin
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
0818 719 377 Book online
28 Feb – 4 March Canterbury
Marlowe Theatre
01227 787787 Book online
6 – 11 March Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21 Book online
13 – 18 March Southend
Cliffs Pavilion
01702 351135 Book online
28 March – 1 April Woking
New Victoria Theatre
0844 871 7645 Book online
3 – 8 April Lowestoft
Marina Theatre
01502 533200 Book online
10 – 15 April Brighton
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7650 Book online
18 – 22 April Northampton
Royal & Derngate
01604 624811 Book online
25 – 29 April Belfast
Grand Opera House
028 9024 1919\ Book online
2 – 6 May Cardiff
New Theatre
029 2087 8889 Book online
8 – 13 May Llandudno
Venue Cymru
01492 872000 Book online
15 – 20 May Manchester
Palace Theatre
0844 871 3019 Book online
22 – 27 May Norwich
Theatre Royal
01603 630000 Book online
30 May – 3 June Shrewsbury
Theatre Severn
01743 281281 Book online


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Comments (1)

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  1. Fiona Flynn says:

    Saw this show tonight (5th Nov. ) and it was amazing. The incredible talent from all the performers on stage was awesome. Every one of them lit up the stage. This show won’t just appeal to people who grew up with this music because the music is timeless and full of energy. I hope young people take the opportunity to see these legends reincarnated. I would recommend this show to all ages, go and see it if you get the chance. I would give it 5 stars.