If you were given The Color Purple in a game of charades, you’d have your work cut out describing the genre. “It’s a book. And a film. And a musical. And it’s going to be a film musical…” Alice Walker’s 1982 novel sure inspired many other creative talents to spread the story of sisters Celie and Nettie, and their vastly different lives. It’s a story of hardship, tragedy, and abuse, yet also of self-discovery, triumph over adversity and pure joy. No wonder it’s been such an inspiration and has such a firm place in our cultural toolbox.
I’m sure you know the story, but just in case… set in the early years of the 20th century, Celie, abused by her father, has already borne two children to him, whom he instantly takes away from her. Nettie, her younger, prettier sister is inseparable from Celie. When Celie is married off to the brutal “Mister”, Nettie escapes the clutches of her father and tries to join them, but terrified of Mister she runs away, and Celie never hears from her again. Celie lives a life of drudgery and abuse until she meets the beautiful and charismatic singer Shug Avery, who has a string of partners and husbands, including on-off affairs with Mister; and the two fall in love. As the years go by, Celie grows sufficiently in confidence to abandon Mister and move in with Shug and her latest chap – but she still doesn’t find the love she craves. Fortunately, there is a happy ending, although you’re never quite sure it’s on the cards, but at the end of the show, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the 2013 production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was intense, intimate, pared down and genuinely awesome. Tinuke Craig’s production for the Leicester Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, which has taken three long Covid-interrupted years to reach the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, is a much more expansive experience, with a lush sounding band in the orchestra pit, big set designs, and a fuller ensemble.
I know comparisons are odious and you shouldn’t do them on a theatre review. But I’m only human. There are plusses and minuses to this bigger, brasher vision for the show. On the positive side, the whole thing looks tremendous. In the big group numbers, Mark Smith’s choreography is snappy and slinky, with the whole cast covering the stage with dynamic, exciting movement. There’s no greater example of this than in the opening church service scene, which brilliantly brings to life one of those huge, outrageous deep south worship events, where everyone is animated and totally committed to following their passion. Ian Oakley’s band fills the auditorium with sumptuous orchestrations way more than their seven-strong number might suggest. Alex Lowde’s set dominates proceedings and suggests individual locations like the church, or the shops, or the patio at Mister’s ranch, whilst also providing a background for projections of crop fields, or that significant, symbolic, color purple. Whilst not in itself particularly attractive, it’s very functional and helpful for the story to unfold.
However, there is a minus side. Somehow, somewhere, in all this brash sense of theatre that hits you from all angles, so much of the pathos and tragedy of the piece falls by the wayside. The menace, that should be extreme from the likes of Mister and Pa, is lost. Take Mister’s whip, for example, that never leaves his side. That should crack and terrorise Celie, but instead it just flops onto the stage with a dull thud – frankly, that’s not going to scare anyone. Or, when Sofia is beaten up and flung in jail, that should break the audience’s heart at the sight of this strong independent woman brought to her knees by her foes; but, to be honest, Sofia looked to me like she was suffering from no more than a heavy hangover. The savagery that is at the heart of the show is simply presented as too discreet, too polite, too remote; it needs to be much more in-your-face.
The show is at its best when it presents us the story with simplicity and clarity, such as the pivotal moment when Celie finally stands up to Mister, to the whoops and applause of the audience. But there were a few scenes where it wasn’t that easy to follow what was going on. This was not helped by a very mushy sound amplification. It wasn’t that the band was too loud for the voices, but that the sound we heard had insufficient clarity. At times it was like we had gone back to the days of Mono rather than Stereo. To be fair, this problem was hugely improved in the second act – so I guess this might be attributable to first night getting-in glitches. But there were a few other irritating aspects, like the downstage right prop table being visible to half the audience at the beginning of Act Two, and many of the costumes being in dire need of a good ironing. Minor points, I accept, but they accumulate.
The show very much succeeds or fails on the strength of the performer who plays Celie, and we’re onto a winner with the amazing Me’sha Bryan. We saw her online in Romantics Anonymous during the lockdowns and she was impressive then – but there’s no doubt she’s a star in the making. I know it’s a cliché to say she has the voice of an angel, but – actually – if you heard an angel sing, it would sound like Ms Bryan. I particularly liked how she subtly aged during the course of the show, from being a very young girl in the opening scenes to quite a mature lady at the end – simple, effective, convincing. My only criticism would be – and I think this would be a directorial choice rather than in the acting – the younger Celie is so used to tragedy and cruelty that, simply to survive, she takes everything so much in her stride, hiding her sadness from the real world, womaning up and getting on with life. The trouble is, by concealing her emotional state from the audience, it’s harder for us to tap into it and feel the tragedy of her existence. Nevertheless, she puts on a great performance and it’s worth coming to see the show for her alone.
Aaliyah Zhané is also extremely good as Nettie; she also has a beautiful singing voice, and her duets with Ms Bryan are perfect. I enjoyed Ahmed Hamad’s Harpo, bringing a little of the decency and humour out of the role; although (call me a prude if you like) I felt the “sexual chemistry” between him and Anelisa Lamola’s Sofia went a little over the top. The ensemble worked together extremely well – for me, both Karen Mavundukure as Doris and swing Alex Okoampa stood out.
A game of two halves, then. The dramatic tension and emotional heartstrings after the interval increased hugely to create a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the show; it’s just that some of the journey getting there was a little bumpy. But it’s still a fine spectacle and you’ll be talking about Me’sha Bryan for days!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan