Review - King in Concert (Hackney Empire)

It's been 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, one of the most influential and inspirational historical figures of all time. Although many may be familiar with the legacy of King, his personal life is decidedly less well publicised, and yet it is equally fascinating. Happily though, 30 years after its single public performance at the Prince Edward Theatre, Martin Smith's musical King was revived for just two performances at the Hackney Empire, featuring a story which spanned from King's time at university right up until his untimely death on the 4th of April, 1968.

Cedric Neal and Debbie Kurup in King
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Getting to understand what drove King, initially a very reluctant leader, to become the iconic figure he is now seen as, was clearly at the heart of actor Cedric Neal's performance, as his embodiment of Martin Luther King was full of nervous energy, but also teamed with immutable power and conviction which only grew as the story went on. 

The supporting cast were equally strong, with especially affecting vocal performances courtesy of Jo Servi, Daniel Bailey, Adrian Hansel and Adam J Bernard. The quartet's touching a cappella number Freedom On My Mind stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the show, and provided a somber moment of reflection during an otherwise rather fast paced story. 

The story's pace may have been King's only real downfall. It moved so swiftly from one moment in Martin Luther King's life to another, touching on so many of his triumphs as a Civil Rights Movement leader that there was very little room for any deeper exploration of the events, and how they affected King and his family.

In fact, Coretta King, who was initially established as King's equal and even partially narrated the prologue and epilogue, was shunted to the side quite a bit throughout, which was a shame given the extraordinarily nuanced performance by Debbie Kurup, who was a statuesque marvel in the role. It may have been nice to see more of Coretta and the part she played in the Civil Rights Movement, independent of her husband.

The cast of KingPhoto credit - Nick Rutter 
That being said, the musical still packed plenty of painful punches, and the addition of archival images and video footage of the events taking place in the story was an inspired touch by Reuben Cook, which proved particularly potent during the Act 1 closing number; a musical interpretation of the emotions stirred by King's I Have A Dream speech. 

As is always the case with London Musical Theatre Orchestra productions, the orchestra was utterly faultless, embracing the verve and jubilance of Simon Nathan's orchestrations wholeheartedly, under the baton of conductor and London Musical Theatre Orchestra founder Freddie Tapner. Additionally, the voices of both the Hackney Empire Community Choir and the Gospel Essence Choir helped to bolster the already strong cast, and made large ensemble numbers soar even higher.

50 years after Martin Luther King's tragic death, his legacy still lives on, and King explored just exactly why that is. The man who rallied for the Civil Rights Movement, using his skills as a master orator to inspire crowds and arrange peaceful protests, will always be remembered for the part he played in changing the world, and in 2018 reviving a musical like King in order to honour him seems like the least that can be done.