Playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until September 14.
“Wives is like children,” we are told at the start of The Color Purple, the Menier’s latest musical offering. “Ain’t nothing for them but a big sound beating.”
Alice Walker’s classic novel, adapted first into an acclaimed film and then a musical, makes its London debut in the latter form with an assured production that showcases some of our finest musical theatre talent – while also producing an incredibly moving and emotional tale of abuse and survival, and of rejection of the idea that subjugation of anyone can be tolerated.
Drawing musical inspiration from gospel singing and the jazz and blues of the early 20th century, the songs come so thick and fast that spoken dialogue is, in the early stages at least, kept to a bare minimum. The storytelling never gives up, though, and director John Doyle propels the narrative forward with the utmost clarity.
At the start of the play’s 30-year story, Celie is just 14 years old, the same age as the new century. She is already a mother of two children, conceived in rape by the stepfather who takes the children away and then sells Celie in marriage to ‘Mister’, a violent man who really wanted her prettier sister, Nettie.
Initially, Celie is accepting of her (as she sees it, of all women’s) lot in life, accepting that men beat women: that is all she knows. It is only when her adult stepson Harpo’s wife Sofia stands up to her husband – a man whom Celie herself had counselled to hit Sofia to bring her into line – that Celie begins to grow, to love herself, and to lead by example. The levity of the Act II number in which her career as a seamstress sees the women of the town all wearing Celie’s trousers illustrates this perfectly. “Look who’s wearing the pants now,” as the women say.
As the abusive and raging Mister, Christopher Colquhoun is suitably demonic and controlling, yet rounds the character out enough to prevent him becoming irredeemable. And redemption is at the heart of this play: while Celie is not a spiritual person (“He is just another man to me,” she says at one point, after it is pointed out that God has taken plenty of time in getting around to helping her), her ability to grow stronger through loving herself – and, by sharing that love, to change others – is as moving and instructive as a spiritual parable.
And despite incredible supporting performances from Sophia Nomvete’s Sofia and Nicola Hughes as singer and love interest Shug Avery – either of which would be strong enough to sell this show on their own – there is Cynthia Erivo as Celie. Smaller in stature than most of her fellow cast members, her size works in her favour during Celie’s early, submissive years, before making her increased inner strength so much more impressive. But it is Erivo’s physical and vocal performance that makes the most impact. Blessed with a belt that can equally profess despair and anguish against man and God, or proclaim a new found self-confidence, Erivo’s performance tops an evening of theatre that resonates long after the final, jubilant curtain call.