Review – Soul, The untold story of Marvin Gaye, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2016

SoulTell you what, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. After all, we’ve all got one. Although I think mine is a bit different from most people’s. Here’s mine: Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby. What? I was thinking of favourite Marvin Gaye songs, landsakes! Yep, I was nine when that came out. Even at that tender age I had decided that I Heard it through the Grapevine was a bit self-indulgently dour. But Too Busy was a happy song and I loved the fact that Marv didn’t get around to singing the title line until the end of the second chorus, he just let his backing singers do the rest. Funny the things you remember!

Nathan Ives-MoibaI was slightly alarmed when I realised that Soul was written by Roy Williams because I really didn’t like his Days of Significance which I saw earlier this year. However, this is a vastly superior work. It’s the story of the life of Marvin Gaye, as seen through the eyes of his two sisters Jeanne and Zeola – in fact the play was inspired by Jeanne’s memoir and the writer interviewed both sisters to obtain original, first-hand material. We see Marvin Snr and Alberta’s first meeting, followed by their quick marriage; fresh-faced young Marvin being brought up with his sisters; Keenan Munn-Francishis father’s ruthless dealing out of violent discipline on the boy; his subsequent facing up to his father; his brief spell in the Air Force; then his developing career, but how it never brought him happiness. The second act is a thrilling but despairing look at the family’s life together in The Big House in Gramercy Place, Los Angeles; Marvin’s decline into cocaine addiction and vodka consumption; and finally his death at the hands of his father, who shot him when he was possessed with sheer anger – which struck me as being pretty much his father’s default mentality from the start.

Marvin Snr the TyrantEveryone knows that Marvin Gaye was killed by his father; so right from the start this play is fashioned as a classic tragedy – we already know its sad ending. We have our central tragic hero, and our villain, Marvin Snr; he accuses his son of sexual shenanigans with his mother so we also have some Oedipal content; Jeanne and Zeola watch from the outside and comment as the drama is played out, so they assume the role of the Chorus. Within seconds of the play starting we know that Marvin Snr’s God-fearing nature is of the brutal and unforgiving kind, refusing to have anything to do with Alberta’s child from an earlier union, and degrading his son into a whimpering mess with the application of his belt. You sense that from here on in, any happiness is only ever going to be temporary. Marvin Jnr’s professional (or otherwise) relationship with Tammi Terrell is brought to a vivid end on stage as she collapses on the floor with a brain tumour, just as they were making sweet music together (literally). Nathan Ives-Moiba and Abiona OmonuaThe church that Marvin Jnr promises Marvin Snr never materialises. In the background, marriages take place, followed by divorces. Marvin Snr is revealed as a serial womaniser and a cross-dresser, which is an interesting combo. Alberta’s cancer takes hold and makes her weaker. There’s not a lot of happiness here – which makes a fascinating contrast with the frequently recurring and uplifting gospel music performed by the fantastic Royal and Derngate Community Choir. Nevertheless, I didn’t find the play remotely gloomy. I thought it was a fascinating study of two men who were their own worst enemy, and who, for 99% of the time, were at each other’s throats. The 1% when they weren’t, as epitomised in the very final scene, was very emotional. Marvin Jnr had a tear rolling down his cheek in that final scene – and I think I did too.

A song is bornJon Bausor has created an amazing set which not only looks absolutely the bees’ knees, but also solves that problem of how to create several acting spaces on the tiny stage of the Royal. When you enter the auditorium, it’s clear we’re in a church, with Pentecostal blue curtains behind a devout looking podium, and plush carpeted stairs flowing down into the audience, taking out Row A with the majestic sweep of their woollen twist. Before it started, I did confess to Mrs Chrisparkle that at any moment Kenny Everett could emerge from behind the curtain with his huge hands shouting Brother-lee love! Yes, I know, tasteless. Above the stage, Marvin’s parents’ bedroom, dominated by a cross. Downstairs, basic furniture that provides sufficient but not excessive comfort. For the second act, a much more luxurious main room, with a Brother and sisterscarpeted set of stairs with so deep a pile you could lose an entire foot in it; an enviable set of hifi separates (made my mouth water) and The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s massive orange leather three-piece suite that she bought in 1973 when she was feeling flush. A really superb, flexible and accurately furnished set. Also, hats off for the lighting design with its variety of moods and uses – subtle yet very effective.

Final sceneThe performances are really strong throughout and I thought each member of the cast absolutely gave it their all. As our guides to the story, I really enjoyed the performances of Petra Letang and Mimi Ndiweni as Jeanne and Zeola, the older sister more headstrong and traditional, the younger more fun-loving and forgiving. They had a nice double-act going, with gentle bickering about how much of the story to reveal and with divided loyalties when it came to supporting one family member over another. I’d spotted young Keenan Munn-Francis in the cast of The Scottsboro Boys as being One To Watch, and I must say he is on great form here as the young Marvin, singing sweetly and boldly standing up to his father’s tyranny. Nice boxing work too! Adjoa Andoh, as Alberta, trod the tricky path of supporting her difficult husband even when Adjoa Andohhe’s patently the family despot; beautifully trying to smooth the waters of family disharmony and doing her best always to support her son. There’s also a cracking performance by Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell, a 60s vision of psychedelia, firmly putting Marvin in his place and giving us a hint of their fantastic duet. Yes, I agree, it would have been terrific to hear them perform You Are Everything all the way through, but drama must have its way.

Mimi NdiweniAt the heart of the story is the antagonistic relationship between father and son, and this created some terrific electricity on stage. Leo Wringer is excellent as Marvin Snr; in his younger days inscrutably malign, you sense hiding his bullying and controlling nature beneath the façade of the Church, using attack as the best form of defence when his womanising ways are found out; in his later years, a slow contempt for his son continually growing – although you do get the sense that if only Marvin Jnr had kept his promise and given him his church, he would have been happy simply to control and domineer his worshippers and not his family. Nathan Ives-Moiba is perfect as Marvin Jnr; at first ambitious and dedicated to his work – I loved the brief dance/dream sequence of him at the piano, Marvin's drinking againtrying to create a masterpiece – only to be overwhelmed by his drug addiction and reduced to pathetic desperation, paranoia making him believe there are people outside “out to get him”, and scrabbling round the floor in his dressing gown trying to save spilt coke. His death is provocatively staged, with him offering himself up to his father, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross; but, like Eleanor Rigby, no one was saved.

Marvin and TammiI came away from this production awed and thrilled. Full of passion, tragedy, and the frailty of man. I felt desperately sorry for the characters but totally impressed with the insight into what Marvin Gaye’s life – and death – must have been like. A co-production with the Hackney Empire, it’s moving to that theatre on 15th June after its season at the Royal and Derngate has ended. Cannot recommend it too highly!

Review – The Color Purple, The Musical, Menier Chocolate Factory, 3rd August 2013

The Color PurpleSaturday night saw another trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory, one of my favourite theatre venues. One thing you can say about the Menier productions, they’re never bland. Usually they come up with something really good and entertaining; occasionally they offer you a real stinker; and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to witness something mega-wonderful. The Color Purple (The Musical) is, I’m delighted to say, in the latter category. Full instant standing ovations are, I think, becoming a little more commonplace nowadays, but for the performance of The Color Purple on Saturday night it was absolutely deserved. Something I’ve rarely seen is that the emotion of the show and the quality of the performances were so strong that mini-ovations were breaking out around the audience during the second act, responding almost organically to the thrill of the show. That tells its own story.

Cynthia ErivoDo you remember the 1985 Spielberg film? I can vaguely recall it – I know I enjoyed it, and found it moving; I seem to remember Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was in those days) dabbing away at the tears in the car park afterwards. If the synopsis on wikipedia for the film is accurate, then the musical is very faithful to the original plot. Briefly, it’s the story of Celie, forced to marry a violent farmer (“Mister” is all she knows of his name) and her beloved sister Nettie, who goes to Africa with some missionaries; of Celie’s cruel home life and her will to survive, how she regains confidence and love through Shug Avery, and how the two sisters are finally reunited.

Nicola HughesIt’s based on Alice Walker’s novel, of course, and has music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who between them have inter alia written such notables as Earth Wind and Fire’s “September”, “What Have I Done To Deserve This” by the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, and Madonna’s “Into The Groove”. For this show they have created some superb songs – jazzy, lyrical and showbizzy – which are played with great funkiness by the band. The book is by Marsha Norman and is tight, clear, intelligent and packing an emotional punch. The show opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for over two years, where it was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It’s taken some time for it to reach the UK, but, boy, was it worth the wait.

Christopher ColquhounOne of the great things about the Menier is that when you descend the steps into the auditorium you never know how they are going to have re-jigged the acting space. It’s such an incredibly flexible venue; it must be a dream come true to an innovative director. For this production the seating is on three sides and the acting stage is a bare platform that juts massively into the available space and dominates the room. There’s no other scenery, and a few basic props only, which leaves it all up to your imagination to fill in the gaps. The stark bareness of the set emphasises the harshness of the day-to-day reality for the main characters, and it works beautifully.

Sophia NomveteJohn Doyle has assembled an incredible array of talent in the cast who work together as a terrific ensemble but it’s also studded with several star performances. The demanding main role of Celie is played by Cynthia Erivo, who we really enjoyed in Sister Act last year. As “Sister” Deloris she came across as a big powerful lady; in The Color Purple, it’s extraordinary how actually she is quite a diminutive presence, her stature reflecting both her youthfulness in the early part of the show and her lowly position in the pecking order of life as it proceeds. What she lacks in height she absolutely makes up for in power – in droves. She feels, and projects, all the emotions of Celie’s rollercoaster life; her face can light up with childish joy or be tortured by the agony of torment. Her rendition of “I’m Here” in the second act had the audience delirious with pleasure. It’s a superb performance and she wins all our hearts; absolutely top quality.

Abiona Omonua and Cynthia ErivoAnother star performance comes from Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery, Mister’s on-off girlfriend, who also becomes Celie’s on-off girlfriend. Full of confidence and exuding a “look-at-me” je ne sais quoi from every pore, Miss Hughes has a cracker of a voice and an innate sexiness that makes her perfect for the part. She too lives every emotion throughout the show, and I actually thought she was going to burst into tears at the finale. There’s a remarkably vivid and powerful performance by Christopher Colquhoun as Mister, creepily terrifying in his sadism with the young women, but later giving me goose bumps for his “epiphany” moment in the song “Celie’s Curse” which was just sensationally performed. His quiet, defeated and partially redeemed persona at the end of the show was a superb contrast to his prior wickedness. Stealing every scene she’s in is the wonderful Sophia Nomvete as Sofia, the gutsy girl who’s “Hell, No!” attitude usually gets her what she wants but is her downfall too. She’s extremely funny as the self-assertive Sofia when life is going well, but the scene where she has been beaten up was one of the saddest I’ve ever seen on stage; Miss Nomvete struggling to breathe whilst helpless drops of saliva involuntarily escape from her battered mouth. That’s a memory that will last a long time.

Adebayo BolajiThere’s also great support from the rest of the cast. Abiona Omonua is very convincing as Nettie, Celie’s kind-hearted and loving sister, and she and Miss Erivo have a great on-stage relationship; Adebayo Bolaji as Mister’s son Harpo has a great stage presence and brings out both the humour and decency of the role; and Lakesha Cammock makes a lively and funny Squeak, the new waitress at Harpo’s juke joint who gets delightfully jealous at any opportunity. But the entire cast is brilliant; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musical sung quite so superbly from start to finish by every single member of the company.

It’s not often you see people openly weeping in their seats; the power of the emotions that this show creates is electric. This surely must have “transfer” written all the way through it like a stick of rock. You just have to see it. It’s a no-brainer. Book now!