A theatrical adaptation of a book that has received as much critical acclaim as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has the perhaps unenviable challenge of living up to incredibly high expectations. But it works as a musical, as it did on Broadway, and closer to home (for London readers, anyway) at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Despite a hard-hitting story – in more ways than one – there are more than a few musical theatre conventions that are adhered to. There’s the ‘I wish’ musical number that features early on in the show – in this case, it’s called ‘Our Prayer’, and what’s especially poignant here is that the wishes and desire of the characters who sing the song are relatively humble – and yet seemingly unattainable, except by divine intervention (hence the song’s title).
If I were to assume the position of someone who hadn’t read the book before (or indeed saw a concert version of the musical previously), I would still be able to predict that Celie (T’Shan Williams) would eventually triumph over adversity. What is far less predictable is how this happens, and although part of the narrative in the second half calls to mind the likes of Waitress and Half A Sixpence inasmuch as the central character inherits a substantial sum, the show also serves as a reminder that there are certain things in life that any amount of money cannot purchase.
As someone who had a borderline puritanical religious upbringing, the portrayal of God in this story is fascinating. Celie, having suffered so much at the hands of the patriarchy, and not having had her prayers answered (affirmatively or otherwise), throws her hands up and declares that God is “just another man as far as I’m concerned”. There are more than enough recognisable elements of church life throughout the show, but I think it is best personified through Doris (Dannielle Kassaraté), Darlene (Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah) and Jarene (Landi Oshinowo), three church friends who under an outer façade of holiness are really the town’s gossips. But at least their conversations are put to good comic effect time and time again.
In the character of Mister (Ako Mitchell), the importance of good role models for people to follow is underlined – this is someone who hasn’t had genial and positive people to look up to, which at least partly explains an abrasive personality with a deeply misogynistic outlook. The variation in musical numbers is excellent, from the evangelical happy-clappy ‘Mysterious Ways’ at the top of the show to the more reflective ‘What About Love?’. Alex Parker leads a seven-piece band that glides through thirty-three (according to the programme) musical numbers seemingly effortlessly, and somehow, they make themselves sound like at least twice as large.
It’s the songs that make the show enjoyable for the most part (the novel is, frankly, really quite relentlessly cheerless). Take, for instance, the entertainer Shug Avery (Joanna Francis). In ‘Push Da Button’ her talent and charm is evidently on display, and although the storytelling takes a back seat for a few moments, it allows the audience to come up for proverbial air before the show plunges once more into a very gritty plot. That said, there are moments when the large Curve Theatre stage feels a tad too big when just two people are engaged in dialogue and the entire stage is lit up.
The set is kept relatively simple – and why not, in a show whose characters are not exactly known for material wealth – with two openings, one stage left, the other stage right, from which various scene changes occur. The final moments are about as heartfelt as the ‘oh my daddy’ ending in The Railway Children, and there is an incredible tenderness and affection between Celie and Shug that makes their otherwise unlikely compatibility convincing. Then there’s Sofia (Karen Mavundukure), a gloriously no-nonsense lady who is subjected to severe physical abuse but whose spirit is never broken for very long.
It’s not a perfect production, so I can’t go for the full five stars, but it’s one of those shows that is so emotionally thrilling, if a tad exhausting, to watch. Some excellent use of video projections means there are few, if any, gaps to fill in with one’s imagination. Both the book and the musical, the latter having premiered on Broadway in 2005, were ahead of its time. In the era of #TimesUp and #MeToo a revival of The Color Purple is very apt, and I hope this production follows in the footsteps of other Curve Theatre shows in having a life well beyond a three-and-a-half week run across two venues. A hearty and impressive night out.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Directed by Tinuke Craig, The Color Purple is filled with a soul-raising musical score of jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues. The landmark musical, from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, classic hit film and Tony Award-winning production on Broadway, follows heroine Celie as she discovers her own identity and power over the course of 40 years in 19th century southern America.
T’Shan Williams as heroine Celie. Joanna Francis as Shug Avery, Ako Mitchell as Mister, Simon-Anthony Rhoden as Mister’s son Harpo, Karen Mavundukure as his wife Sophia, Danielle Fiamanya as Celie’s sister Nettie and Delroy Brown as Pa.
The cast is completed by Geoff Aymer, Owen Chaponda, Perola Congo, KM Drew Boateng, Danielle Kassaraté, Anelisa Lamola, Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy, Landi Oshinowo and Jo Servi.
Director Tinuke Craig
Set & Costume Designer Alex Lowde
Musical Supervisor and Musical Director Alex Parker
Orchestrator Martin Higgins
Choreographer Mark Smith
Lighting Designer Joshua Pharo
Sound Designer Tom Marshall
Hair & Make-up Designer Cynthia De La Rosa
Casting Director Kay Magson CDG
Co-producers Birmingham Hippodrome