Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Alice Walker
Music and lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Director: John Doyle
Reviewer: Ian Foster
The Broadway production of the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple was no great success and so it may seem an unusual choice for the Menier Chocolate Factory to bring to their Southwark home. Nor does the story of Celie, a young woman forced to bear two children by her violent stepfather who then sent them away and then married her off to a brutal partner, necessarily seem one ideal for this genre. But with the focus being on survival, on the road to self-actualisation against racial and sexual pressures, and a score blending many aspects of black music into a smooth melange, it is surprisingly effective.
There’s much potential for this to be a highly overwrought piece, but where John Doyle’s production comes into its own is in achieving a Zen-like state of calm for the show, a clean simplicity which permeates every aspect and focuses the intensity of the emotion. Doyle’s own design reconfigures the Menier to great effect, stripping it back to bleached wood and a collection of chairs; Ann Yee’s choreography finds huge elegance in as simple a movement as walking forwards and then back; and at the heart of it all, is a performance of immense grace from Cynthia Erivo as the much-maligned Celie.
The narrative spans over 30 years but wisely, there is no specific attempt to try and age the character. Instead, we witness Celie growing into herself, slowly becoming able to fit her skin and Erivo ensures we feel every step of this personal growth through the subtlest of changes – this is no showy display but rather like the blossoming of a calla lily, a gentle transformation into something genuinely stunning. A mixture of deadpan pragmatism and moving openness keeps her mercifully far from mawkishness and one ends up longing for the little moments of cheer that brighten her day and give us her radiant smile.
And around her, the ensemble brim with beautifully observed work. Nicola Hughes captures the attention of everyone, man and woman, as club singer Shug Avery whose empowering kindness is matched only by her blithe ignorance of how she makes others feel. A trio of churchwomen form a wryly amusing chorus, Abiona Omonua keeps Nettie adorably sweet as an almost fantastical figure and Sophia Nomvete is rib-achingly, heart-breakingly excellent as the fierce Sofia, the very model of hard-earned independence.
Not everything works quite as well. The African masks felt an adornment too much against the sparseness of the design elsewhere. And the score – Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis – rarely pauses for breath, resulting in some hurried characterisations – Christopher Colquhoun’s Mister being a particularly good example with his conversion to good over and done with in the length of a song. This reviewer has never read the book or seen the film and perhaps the removal of the burden of expectation that often accompanies adaptation worked more in its favour, but there is no doubting the soul-stirring quality of this show. A life affirming tale of grace under pressure anchored by a truly great musical theatre performance from Erivo – this is theatre to fill your heart to overflowing.