Thursday, 1 August 2013

Theatre review: The Color (sic) Purple

Another Broadway musical that shares a title and subject matter with a famous film, except this time the two actually do come from the same source, Alice Walker's novel The Color (sic) Purple. Spanning several decades of the 20th century it first introduces its heroine Celie (Cynthia Erivo) in 1914 at the age of 14, already pregnant for the second time as a result of being raped by her stepfather, both children taken away to mysterious ends. She's soon married off to the tyrannical widower Mister (Christopher Colquhoun,) mainly to raise his kids. Celie is a mousy creature whose only experience of how women should behave to men is cowering obedience, so behaves accordingly to the fearsome Mister, who soon bans her from ever again contacting her beloved sister Nettie (Abiona Omonua.) But over the years she meets other women with a much more independent attitude, and over the years she blossoms.

The deep thrust stage that director/designer John Doyle has installed in the Menier is simply themed in wooden planks and chairs, and his production accordingly goes for simplicity, eschewing fireworks in favour of concentrating on character and the performers' powerful vocals.

The show is full of strong numbers although their style sometimes comes across a bit incongruous to the setting - the songwriting team of Brenda Russell, Alee Willis and Stephen Bray are between them responsible for numerous well-known hits of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and the songs here often have a '90s pop/R&B feel that seems a bit out of place. Or maybe it's the fact that signature tune "What About Love?" sounds so much like All 4 One's "I Swear" that gives that impression. In any case the songs are pretty spectacularly served by the voices of Doyle's cast.

Erivo is a striking lead who takes us along the journey of Celie from almost invisible to liberated and very much respected - by men as well as women. But there's a lot of memorable roles for women here: Sophia Nomvete as the indestructible Sofia is scene-stealing and hilarious both on her own and with the adorable Adebayo Bolaji as her husband Harpo. An interesting character given the controversy about how Walker's book portrayed black men, the meek Harpo is clearly the most likeable male character but still a philanderer - although, in keeping with the changing attitudes as the story goes on, his cheating seems to be done under the understanding that Sofia gets to play around as well. But the biggest influence on Celie's increasing liberation will be Shug Avery (Nicola Hughes,) the ageing singer with whom Mister has had a long-running affair and with whom Celie herself ends up in a quasi-lesbian relationship.

This is all very powerful and life-affirming stuff, and I couldn't have asked for a better company and creative team to bring it to life in London, but as Celie hurtles towards her happy ending I found myself at a bit of a disconnect: I think it's that Walker's story is that little bit too slickly constructed to build towards a particular effect, the big tearful, emotional reaction from the audience which clearly worked for most. For me its textbook chick-flick structure started to border on the cynical. I joined in the much-deserved standing ovation at the end (although I waited for Erivo to take her bow as is right and proper rather than just standing up indiscriminately, what are we, Americans?) but it was for what the cast did with the material rather than the material itself - given how acutely aware I was by the end of the play trying to manipulate my emotions, the fact that the cast actually managed to move me is a testament in itself.

The Color (sic) Purple by Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, based on the novel by Alice Walker, is booking until the 14th of September at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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