Review – The Color Purple, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2022

Color PurpleIf 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.

Nettie and CelieI’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.

Happy EndingMrs 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.

Shug getting intimateI 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.

MisterHowever, 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.

Nettie Mister and CelieThe 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.

Celie and ShugThe 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.

Three ladiesAaliyah 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.

ShugA 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

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

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!