Rural 20th-century Georgia has come to Southwark as the heady, emotional musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, threatens to explode out of the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory theatre.
Rape, racism, child abuse and domestic violence might initially feel like tough themes for a song-and-dance show, until you remember many (most?) hit musicals feature pretty dark stories (Carousel; West Side Story; Spring Awakening to name just a few). In The Color Purple, these ugly threads are spun against the most beautiful melodies. Song after song, in styles through churchy gospel, heavy masculine blues, sassy jazz and soaring soul, a stunning cast of singers give voice to all the emotions packed into this troubled place struggling through difficult times.
Staged on a bare, wooden-slatted thrust platform, with simple school chairs occasionally creating church pews, farm machinery, a bath and more, the team break the fourth wall early, welcoming the audience into their church. With all the action happening so close, it’s easy to be drawn in; overpowering awkwardness at being silent witness to such abuse; welling tear ducts as God’s apparent abandonment is indicted; prickly goosebumps as heroines rediscover both their faith and er, “sass”. Last night, some heart-strings were tugged so hard, there was a mid-song standing ovation from some enthusiastic punters.
At the centre of the show is Celie, played by the golden voiced Cynthia Erivo. A hugely charismatic actress, Erivo manages to capture both the naive spirit in the battered-and-abused 14 year old, as well as the strength and forgiveness in the older Celie. When her trouser business succeeds (giving rise to a defiant bellow of “Who’s wearing the pants now?”) its a delicious moment. Erivo’s diminutive determinedness is well matched by Nicola Hughes as the feisty but flightly club singer Shug Avery; elsewhere comedy and class are provided by various strong women, particularly Sophia Nomvete.
The masterfully John Doyle-directed whole is an intoxicating mix of one part Peckham church choir; two parts Aretha tribute concert; and three parts misery memoir. Some critics seem to hate it (poor Charles Spencer, suffering with all that emoting). Judging from the fervent ovation and audible sniffling around us last night, we think it might be a hit, despite what the papers are saying. We certainly hope so; we loved it.
The Color Purple runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 51-53 Southwark Street, Southwark, SE1 1RU until 14 September. Tickets range from £27.50 to £37.50. Visit menierchocolatefactory.com to find out more.