Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Alice Walker
Music and Lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Director: Tinuke Craig
Reviewer: Tim Harding
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, The Color Purple tells a story with an epic sweep spanning over forty years in the life of Celie and the community in Georgia where she lives. It may be 40 years post abolition but conditions for these African Americans remain hard in a strongly patriarchal society. When we first meet 14-year-old Celie, she is expecting her second child by her father and is very soon sold in marriage to the overbearing “Mister”. Only the love and companionship of her sister Nettie keeps Celie going, and Mister throws her out after Nettie refuses her advances. Over the course of the story Celie learns to love herself with help from a singer, Shug Avery, who awakes in her passions she didn’t know existed, and she gradually learns to stand up to Mister. She even makes him see the error of his ways and start to seek redemption. At the end of the story, we see her reunited with Nettie and her grown-up children as the story comes full circle.
While the story is set a century ago, this is a very timely story that really connects with its contemporary audience, which felt very free to join in with later scenes and show its vocal support for the strong female characters on stage on this occasion. Themes of physical and emotional abuse, sexual awakening and same-sex relationships are to the fore and in this story, it’s the women who are seen to be the empowered characters. The blues singer Shug Avery (Johanna Francis), called a loose woman by some of the men, is, in reality, a free-spirited modern woman who lives life by her own rules and encourages Celie to do the same. Sophia (Karen Mavundukure) is feisty and sexually confident, and she demonstrates to Celie how to stand up to her husband. Mavundukure’s physical comedy, opposite Simon-Anthony Rhoden as her often put-upon husband, Harpo, provides several of the evenings biggest laughs, especially in Any Little Thing.
Designer Alex Lowde’s deceptively simple set allows time and location to move very fluidly and is well supported by Joshua Pharo’s subtle lighting and projection design.
Director Tinuke Craig’s production does have a couple of awkward moments in act one with two moments of implied physical abuse being greeted by laughter in the audience. But gradually it finds its feet and the story’s emotional heart really shines through after the interval.
At the centre of everything, and hardly ever off stage, is T’Shan William’s powerhouse performance as Celie. Believable at all stages of her character’s emotional journey, Williams dominates the stage with heart and immense vocal talent. I’m Here really does send shivers down the spine.
She is well supported by Ako Mitchell’s brooding Mister, Pérola Congo’s comic turn as Squeak, and a trio of very funny gossiping church women whose pitch-perfect harmonization takes the breath away. The singing across the whole show is stunning in its virtuosity, with the colour in the vocal harmonies, particularly in the finale reprise of The Color Purple, being absolutely exquisite. This is a gloriously sung production that has a very modern message for the #metoo generation.
Runs Until 20 July 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan