The Color Purple at Menier Chocolate Factory
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a personal, epistolary novel, which delves into some of society’s most difficult realities. For this reason, the decision of US writers and songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray and Marsha Norman to make it into a musical in 2006 was brave. The Menier Chocolate Factory’s production was forthright, soulful, funny and vivacious – if a little over zealous.
The play opens on a Sunday morning at church, two girls playing in the aisle. The gospel music heightens and suddenly we see the eldest is pregnant. Whispers and gossiping start up among the crowd of well-dressed churchgoers, and a chorus of The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways is hummed and hymned from disapproving mouths with excellent expressiveness.
Cynthia Erivo plays Celie, a pious young black girl singing songs about God’s love with her younger sister Nettie (Abiona Omonua). Their singing is overlaid and juxtaposed by the bartering of men: in the most harrowing and technically effective part of the musical, the two children lie on the floor trilling excitedly as their father stands tall, selling them to another man at the cheapest possible price.
The tempo changes when Sofia (Sophia Nomvete) enters the show and sings Hell No! with a chorus of angry women, cajoling the audience into laughter and becoming righteous and hoarse with shouting to the point of silliness.
Shug Avery, played by the larger than life Nicola Hughes, dominates the stage, blurs boundaries between masculinity and femininity and introduces Celie to love and sex. It was a shame that the writers shied away from one of the most viscerally shocking parts of the book here when Shug shows Celie her own sexual anatomy.
Celie’s sexual liberation is the most important moment of the book, but it comes just before the interval in this production. The second half is more of a high-pitched celebration and doesn’t seem as strong as the first. The songs start to feel relentlessly joyful and the religious fervour starts to jar.
Director John Doyle executes The Color Purple fantastically: the characters shine, the simple staging lends itself to the often-serious nature of the show, and the music and singing are seamless. Where the musical’s writing let it down the performers belted, shrieked, murmured and reverberated their voices around the sparse room, carrying the audience with them all the way to a standing ovation.
The Color Purple is at Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th August 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.