Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 19 July 2013

The Color Purple

Menier Chocolate Factory ⋄ 5th July 14th September 2013

An undeniable magic.

Alice Saville

Alice Walker’s novel doesn’t seem like an obvious contender for the musical treatment. It’s an opaque and dark book, filled with child abuse, sexual violence and racism, little that would make it musical theatre friendly. Yet with chatshow shout-outs from co-producer Oprah Winfrey and an audience primed by the Spielberg film (in which she also starred), the stage adaptation scored a long run in New York in 2005.

The grit of the story has, it’s true, been smoothed away, but what’s left is a compelling product in its own right. The triumphant opening of John Doyle’s production for the Menier is a kind of manifesto for what follows. The cast are bursting with joy that “it’s Sunday, and we’re in church!” Their ecstasy is only given a little extra savour by the presence of teenage Celie, heavily pregnant by who knows who. Celie doesn’t seem to be taking things too hard either. She gives birth stylishly, a white scarf unfurling from the belly of a distended pinafore. Her subsequent journey pushes her from abusive father to abusive husband, to the abundant company of women.

Walker’s novel has been criticised for being too hard on its male characters. We don’t see much onstage brutality from them here: instead of violence, its more about  a thoughtlessness, a thinness, which is at odds with the big personalities of the women. This thinness extends to the songs – the men are outnumbered in the cast, and overwhelmed in the musical numbers. Still, the lack of the odd deep note is easily forgiven when the vocal performances and songs are this good. The style wavers from blues to gospel – a lot of gospel – to classic, throat-filling power ballads, without ever feeling scatty or jukeboxy.

Cynthia Erivo has a great voice for the vulnerable Celie, an unflowery but beautiful alto that underlights Nicola Hughes’ Shug and her sister’s more showy exploits in their respective duets. The church women are a delight, each with their own tightly wound or loosely expansive set of mannerisms and tics, their voices interplaying for Sunday gossip. There’s something of Hello Dolly about the way that no one can stop singing Shug’s name when she’s around, even the prim church ladies. Hughes makes a gloriously exuberant loose woman, mostly tight, tying Celie into a relationship that helps her forget the mantra of “poor, black, ugly” that life has stamped on her.

Shug and Celie’s relationship is implied more than spoken in the book – this adaptation teases it out, with a duet that sings their love, but is unafraid to announce it’s the sticking points that keep it from running away with them. This subtlety is often missing elsewhere. Celie’s progression from downtrodden to stomping proto feminist goes at a fair clip, and the reliance on gospel pastes an uncomplicated religious gloss on the messy interactions of a divided community.

It seems wrong that a musical built on such a painful story should feel like such a treat. The cast can’t stop smiling, and nor can the audience. Its an eye-blinkingly surreal experience, but one with an undeniable magic of its own.


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

The Color Purple Show Info

Directed by John Doyle

Written by Alice Walker, adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman

Cast includes Cynthia Erivo, Nicola Hughes, Adebayo Bolaji, Abiona Omonua, Lakesha Cammock, Christopher Colquhoun, Sophia Nomvete, Neil Reidman, Keisha T Fraser, Marc Akinfolarin, Ashley Campbell, Leon Lopez , Gabriel Mokake

Original Music Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray




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