Theatre Review: The Color Purple

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

When an acclaimed novel is turned into a musical, the worry is always that it will lose its charm and the story will be overpowered by the music and vision of the creative team. Happily though, The Color Purple is one of those musical adaptations that totally surprises you.

As we entered the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is a fantastic, intimate theatre, the audience already had mixed impressions about what we were about to see. A successful two-year run on Broadway, the production was now ready to take London by storm…

Neglected children, loved but lost children, domestic violence and child rape, not to mention racism, Alice Walker’s tale is about overcoming adversity to be happy with who you are.

The production opens with two young sisters, Celie (Cynthia Erivo) and Nettie (Abiona Omonua), playing together and dreaming of their future. Fourteen year old Celie is pregnant (for the second time) with her stepfather’s child and the girls’ song ‘Our Prayer’ is heartfelt and beautiful in both delivery and style. These two innocent girls, full of hope and ambition, unaware of how their lives are about to change.

The slow start doesn’t last long, as Celie’s baby is taken away, she is married off to cruel Mister (Christopher Colquhoun) and Nettie vanishes without a trace.

As the years go by, Celie struggles with her life, beaten by her husband and believing her sister to be dead. But she gradually realises from her friends that it doesn’t have to be like this forever and she is strong. Her friend Sofia (the fabulous Sophia Nomvete) imbibes all of the qualities of ‘girl power’ as she sings ‘Hell No’ which reduces the audience to giggles as she dominates the stage.

In fact the amount of humour in the production is surprising, given the sensitive topics that are discussed, but this makes the performance more human. The clucking church women also make the audience laugh and add to the community spirit of southern America in the first half of the twentieth century.

Staging is simple, with just a few props, including wooden chairs that are hung on the wall and cleverly used to great effect. They were also a talking point as the audience entered the theatre. John Doyle’s direction ensures that the actors make the most of the stage and that no part of the audience has a disadvantaged view.

There are no weak performers and the amount of talent in this production is unbelievable. Cynthia Erivo in particular completely blows your mind with her transition from teenager to adult and her incredible voice leads to a standing ovation halfway through Act Two for her performance of ‘I’m Here’. This song was full of emotion and left the audience speechless, feeling every single word.

No matter how sceptical you are about this production (and I admit I was), prepare to be utterly amazed. The score is beautiful and the songs (a collaboration from Stehen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis) are an inherent part of the story – catchy and unique.

As the performance came to an end and the cast sang a reprise of ‘The Color Purple’, everyone in the theatre (apart from the woman next to me) was on their feet, clapping and cheering. Some people were even stamping their feet, which personally I think is unnecessary. Eyes were shining with tears, both on and off stage as the cast were clearly overwhelmed by the audience appreciation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This review was first written and published for West End Wilma.

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