The first thing that blasts you in the Menier Chocolate Factory is the newly-installed air conditioning, long overdue and a good way to spend the profits from their chain of West End transfers: now even the itchy seats aren’t so scratchy. The second is John Doyle’s breathtaking diagonal set and thrust stage, which must take the Menier back to its very brickwork and seems twice the size of any previous installation. And the third is the voices – every soul-infused belter of both sexes who didn’t make it into The Amen Corner at the National is gathered here to celebrate the UK premiere of The Color Purple: The Musical.

And “celebrate” is the right word, because apart from the gospel fervour required by the script and score, there seems to be an energy in the cast which puts this musical across with vigour and an enthusiasm which infected most of the audience to give standing ovations not only at the end, but at climaxes during the performance.

If you know and were moved by the book, or the Spielberg film (which was shamelessly watered down to obtain a family viewing certificate), you will adore this show, even though the dilution is equally distorting as the narrative shares space with music and dancing. If you come to it cold, the pastiche gospel, muddied lyrics and readily forgettable blues of the score may not be the formula which will bring you closer to Alice Walker’s landmark novel.

To the uninitiated, it’s very confused. Child-bride Celie is abused first by her stepfather, then by her husband and accepts with frustratingly stoic ignorance that being raped, having her children forcibly removed and being forbidden to see her sister is par for the marital course in the sharecropping South, where a breed of ruthless and heartless black paterfamilias may have taken the whip-hand from the slave owners, but a woman is still a chattel. After a mind-altering sapphic encounter with a nightclub singer, she opens a popular tailoring business and is reunited with her long-lost sister and missing children in an act of instantaneous familial reunification so farcially compacted for the stage it would have made Lady Bracknell’s head explode.

Other than the transition from pastiche jazz to pastiche Motown there’s very little delineation of the passage of time in the production either by costume or characterisation, so the succession of plot points is harder to follow. Motives and relationships lack clarity or justification. The themes of self-determination, unashamed lesbian affection, and the visceral heartbeat of African heritage which made the book a sensation are less well realised than you might hope.

All of the cast give barnstorming performances; nobody is less than excellent. Cynthia Erivo’s voice has all of the anger and power that her stage character lacks, and the audience whoops at her money-shot sustained notes. Christopher Colquhoun is taut tensile perfection as her aggressive husband Mister, but the fire of his delivery and the subtlety of his singing are undermined by a facile script which requires him to spin his personality on a dime to become a kindlier man. Nicola Hughes beautifully inhabits the sassy and smart lounge singer Shug Avery, an anachronistically modern and sexualised woman who opens Celie’s eyes to opportunities, and the crowd on-and-off stage loved it whenever she strutted her stuff. Although I bet none of the audience could hum one of the tunes in the morning.

I found myself longing for a version of Celie’s story which was closer to a straight play, perhaps as done by the National or the Old Vic with a lot of appropriately contemporary music, rather than this full-blown, and partly fly-blown, “musical”.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 16th July 2013
Image © Nobby Clark

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.