Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Book by Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by John Doyle
Catching up with this show just before its run ends is to witness musical theatre at its very best. A cast of 17 with a bare stage, some chairs and the simplest of costumed props, depict America's Deep South and occasionally Africa in the early twentieth century. The tale is of the grim life of Celie, whose illegitimate children are taken from her in her youth, who is then "married" to the most brutal of men, yet who goes on to find the most unlikely of redeemers in a scarlet woman who has few morals but a heart of gold. The story tracks Celie's difficult life yet ends with hope and inspiration.
John Doyle has cleverly envisioned the work. Slavery is long abolished, but civil rights remain a dream. When Celie reveals that her father was lynched, the disclosure is so casual as to underline the ingrained racism of the South. With an entirely black cast, the story tells of the cruelty and contempt that lived within the African-American community, itself born out of a culture of contempt and slavery. Yet it is the humour and compassion that shines out from within these people that makes the show sparkle. Rarely has the term "bittersweet" been so apt.
Cynthia Erivo is the diminutive Celie. Her character grows throughout, from an abused pregnant child in the opening scene, to a wise and elderly mother by the end. Erivo's look is plain and hers is to play the cruelly labelled uglier of two sisters. Yet whilst her abusive husband Mister, a first class performance of bullying calculated menace, yet also vulnerability, from Christopher Colquhoun condemns her for her ugliness and servility, Erivo shines throughout with a vocal and physical beauty that is rare to witness. Her solo I'm Here saw the audience rise as one to salute her midway through the second act. Whilst the production's success is of course due to the company as a whole, Erivo has proved to be its dazzling star. Nearly 30 years ago Steven Spielberg's Color Purple movie blasted Whoopi Goldberg's career from modest actress to global celebrity. In a more modest manner, so is history repeating itself. Whilst Erivo was little known outside of the profession before The Color Purple, it has recently been announced that she is to take a leading role at London’s Palladium Theatre next year.
Sophia Nomvete is a delightful Sofia. Feisty funny and furious early on, she breaks our hearts as the victim of a savage racist beating and as Nettie, Celie's sister whose being wrenched apart from her sibling causes such anguish, Abiona Omonua gives a performance of carefully crafted fragile hope. It is left to Nicola Hughes’ Shug Avery, Mister's mistress, who on visiting Celie's miserable home, reaches out to free her from her husband's abuse and set her on an inspirational path to liberty. Hughes' stage pedigree is impeccable and whilst Celie is the show's leading character, her interaction with Avery is an astonishing double act. Their duet What About Love? is as perfect a harmony as is to be found.
Tom Deering's musical direction alongside Catherine Jayes' supervision provides a soulful Southern sound, peppered with the Blues and with an intoxicating African interlude, all rhythm and drums for good measure. Matthew Wright's costume work sets scenes perfectly whilst Linda McKnight's wig design adds a slick authenticity to the actresses.
No need to recommend, it's sold out. But this work demands more. If the gods of the theatre can grant this show a West End transfer, it would be no less than what both London and this glorious production deserve.
Runs to 14th September