The Color Purple – Birmingham Hippodrome

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Book: Marsha Newman

Music and Lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray

Writer: Alice Walker

Director: Tinuke Craig

An elegiac, hymnal celebration of the human spirit, Alice Walker’s acclaimed eponymous novel takes on the literary construct of teenage heroine, Celie’s both imaginary diary/letters to God and later, posted ones to her newly discovered, estranged sister, Nettie. Celie’s truncated prose takes the form of deep American South, impoverished ex-slavery patois.

Walkers’ acute sense of ironic understatement and waspish sense of comic time imbues Celie’s lyrical language with compelling observation, humanity and assured narrative realism.

Sofia and Shug, antithetical female role models, have a profound impact on releasing Celie from her brutal microcosmic life of patriarchal oppression, of incest, imposed pregnancies, and misogynistic violence. The musical is, understandably, hardly going to go anywhere near that except for nuanced inference. Not a bums-on-seats punter puller that one – especially post-Covid. Notwithstanding, there are some disappointingly empty seats this evening.

Shug’s spiritual world view of a God-free construct has a throwback resonance to Roman poet Lucretius’  On The Nature of Things drawing on the philosophies of Ancient Greek, Epicurous together with curious proto-parallels with the future publication of James Lovelock’s Gaia Principal. On that score, this show presses all the buttons – more of which later in The Juke Joint.

Spoiler alert – read the novel first. If having seen Speilberg’s evocative film adaptation, all well and good, but sourcing the mother-lode is essential. Sugaring the bitter pill of Walker’s meta-realism, for some, might leave a saccharine after-taste of populist compromise gone too far. Best leave both novel and film at home and embrace the show for both its many merits and inevitable limitations.

Writer Marsha Newman’s empathic collaboration with songwriters, Russell, Willis and Bray has a show on her hands and makes it good. Casting Director, Kay Magson Cog’s name appears halfway down the lustrious credits pantheon, Warner Bros/Amblin Ents not surprisingly as the top banners. Her astute focus on the right actors for the iconic story characters brings out the very best in protagonist Celie’s Me’sha Bryan. Likewise, the Damascene transformative love-hug, danger-woman of hedonistic sensuality, Bree Smith’s Shug Avery. Meanwhile, coming out of the corner bustin’ for a grandstand knock-out characterisation of Sofia, welcome please, the Amazonian punch and duly dispatching all who stand in her way, the glorious, Anelisa Lamola. Director, Tinuke Graig, shrewdly, if not esoterically, speaks in the programme notes, describing the musical as ..a kind of blown-up fantasia of the film plus live sing (sic) and live acting. Which is both explanatory and telling in that the film adaptation informs this show as much, or less, as Walker’s novel.

The ensemble set-pieces are an utter delight, choreographer, Mark Smith, has them both dancing on pin-heads with toe-pinching precision then swaying with abandon like the Cutty Sark’s crows-nest rounding The Horn in a hurricane. The Africa and We Walk Away tribal ceremonial has a memorable tableau of fundamental beat-groove and costume-print shout-out beauty. Musical Director and keys, and how they swing and twinkle, Ian Oakley, has the band honed to pitch-perfect jive jingle.

Lighting and Video Designer, Joshua Pharo’s projections of maze-fields swaying and the subtle, incremental, almost subliminal, lighting wash of purple marks him as far too clever for his own good – and brilliant with it.

The busybody ensemble sirens of neighbourhood gossip, in their pristine white ginghams and laces and, wasp-in-bloomers, fan-fluttering opprobrium, are both a venal delight and a canny narrative catalyst. Show-stopper scene of the night has to be Shug’s debut belter of sexual innuendo, Push Da Button. A moment of personal intimacy she has earlier revealed to a startled, and revelatory pleasured, Celie. Strictly in the novel, that is. A disconnect from the novel – the role of Mister, later Albert, played with predatory presence by Ako Mitchell – he’s just too damn handsome for the early portrayal of the boorish, slobbish self-pitying thug. Jimand Allotley’s Squeak is sadly too compromised by time and context to allow her ambiguous character to flourish, becoming more a comic aside than the less demonstrative role model that Celie admires for her determination to break free. That said, the stage is hers in an abundance of charismatic dynamism.

Though none of the songs have troubled the charts anytime recently, their anthemic resonance will harp the minds of aspirational young people for long time after.

That this Curve (Leicester) and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production can draw on such a broad, exceptionally talented, cohort of UK black actors is of equal celebration. Some casting directors and their media ilk out there still need to raise their game. It’s not about ethnic positive bias or woke – it’s about damnably fine artistry. Go figure.

Runs Until 17 September 2022 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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