|Photo: The Telegraph|
A couple of weeks back my Mum asked if I'd be up for seeing The Colour Purple. Usually I'm up for seeing pretty much anything, and the Menier Chocolate Factory always has great productions, yet I was a bit hesitant.
I didn't know the book, film or anything about the production which is often usually a good thing - but with the recent heat flaring up my health condition I was lagging in energy and wondered if booking something would be a good idea.
I am so, so glad that I said yes and decided to see this show.
The Colour Purple tells the story of Celie - a young girl living in Southern America. Going through awful things which she doesn't even realise the gravity of at the time - she is kept going by the love of her sister, even when they are apart.
With the story spanning over thirty years (1914-1945), you see Celie grow up and experience relationships that both make and break her, as she deals with abuse and abandonment throughout her life.
Through the influences of women around her she learns to stand her ground and to value her self, even when others around her won't. I hate analogies of "going on a journey" but this is what it feels like - and the ending is all the more powerful for it.
So from the narrative, you would presume this would be a pretty gloomy and brooding show - but that's not the case. Of course the subject matter is heavy, but it is interspersed with moments of real humour and joy. Characterisation from the supporting cast and some wicked one-liners break the atmosphere with laughter, without insensitivity. What really prevails in this show is a sense of love, gratitude and overcoming adversity.
Cynthia Erivo as Celie is an absolute wonder. From the beginning it was clear her seemingly effortless vocals were stunning, but by the end I was in absolute awe. She is a powerhouse in a way that's unusual in a musical, maintaining simplicity over the 'spectacular'. Her voice and passion raises the roof, in a way that's so much more human and connected than is often found on a West End stage. Perhaps part of that is also the stage set up and intimacy of the piece - that we feel with her, rather than merely watching her.
Also worth mentioning is Sophia Nomvete's fierce, and actually very brave, performance as Miss Sofia - hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure.
The music too is stunning - mixing soul, blues and jazz. It's the perfect example of how songs in a musical should work - as a natural progression of a scene, and appropriate to the characters.
A difficulty of adapting a literary text such as this is the passing of time. With over thirty years to cover, this could have proved problematic and led to a sense of superficiality, but it didn't.
The transitions were seamless and subtle. Through the growing characterisation of the performers it felt natural where it could have felt awkward. Credit here should also go to the design team, with a simplistic yet versatile staging. The almost soul use of wooden chairs as set meant the stage could transform convincingly within moments - a busy bar, a workers' field, a small bathroom - it worked.
With a capacity of only 150 and a thrust stage in place, it's easy to pick up on an atmosphere - and this production encouraged an atmosphere unlike anything I've known before.
Whereas often an audience in a musical may clap after each number, then do the usual dutiful applause, cheers and standing ovation if deserved - in this case there were ripples of audible reaction towards the end - after a brilliant come back line, during and after songs. I didn't think the applause would end after Cynthia sang 'I'm Here'.
I have to say I usually find curtain calls quite moving, there's just something about them - how much work has gone into the show, its gets me. Still, I've never experienced a reaction to a show like last night.
The ending of the show brought me to tears, but in the curtain call I really had to stop myself from falling apart. I wanted to sob and cheer at the same time - which would have been a tad awkward and perhaps difficult too.
It wasn't just me either - the interesting thing about this stage set up is that it also allows you to see your fellow audience members. Towards the end there were many, many tears throughout the audience, and I clocked people wanting to jump to applaud before songs had even finished.
That just brings the home the whole joy of live performance - this shared experience. Especially within this space - with the instant and unanimous standing ovation and overwhelming cheers, you really feel like you're part of something special.
I do hope this production will transfer, but at the same time it will be changed for it. Still wonderful, but different. There's something about the Chocolate Factory that captures this intimacy. Within the first song the performers were shaking hands with the audience, immediately making people laugh and loosen up, and by the end we were all falling apart together - close to, and feeling like a part of, the story
The Colour Purple is booking until 14th September so while I do hope, and to a certain extent expect, this would transfer; don't risk it. Book now. Really.