Thursday, 18 February 2021

REVIEW: The Color Purple at the Leicester Curve (Online)

After the success of the Curve's stream of Sunset Boulevard that successfully used the venue as the setting for the Hollywood studios-based story, I was excited to see how they adjusted their 2019 production of the Colour Purple in a socially distanced version for a streamed audience. Indeed, the production hit the headlines for the wrong reasons with an employment tribunal over one cast member which was rejected in the same week as the stream premiered.

Perhaps because I was less familiar with Alice Walker's 1983 book or the musical version of the story with music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray or perhaps because of difficulties getting the stream to run smoothly from the start I found it hard to get into the show. However around two-thirds of the way through the first half, it suddenly burst into life and soared into a powerful uplifting and joyous second half and finale.  

It is a challenging story dealing with domestic violence, incest, racism and sexism in Tennessee over about forty years from 1920 to 1945 and turns the epistolary book into an episodic telling of Celie's life from abused child suffering at the hands of her father Alphonso and her husband Mr Albert to a successful businesswoman. Only one early song "Big Dog" with Mister and his field hands hints at the better songs to come with the rest being generally short snatches of songs that never get going.

The music style is a fusion of Southern America blues, gospel, and jazz with a hint of the African roots and while some are enjoyable to hear none of them fix in your memory even a few hours later. When Shug Avery arrives at Mister and Celie's home the show takes off with some of the better tunes featuring Celie and Shug, "Dear God" and "Too Beautiful for words” set the tone before we get a bit of fun light relief with bluesy nightclub song "Push Da Button" and then show defining song duet "What about Love?" which closes Act 1. 

Carley Mercedes Dyer is a joy as Shag, a confident woman who knows what she wants and how to get it and it is her presence that lifts the show especially in the eponymous song "The Colour Purple". However, she is matched by T'Shan Williams as Celie who emerges from her oppression into an equally powerful and confident woman who overcomes adversity and comes into her own in “I'm here". 

There is good support from Simon-Anthony Rhoden as Harpo and Karen Mavundukure as Sofia especially in the fun and sexy "Any little thing" and a periodic commentary from a three-piece chorus in white on the forestage of, Rosemary Annabelle Nkrumah, Danielle Kassarate and Landi Oshinowo including in the upbeat "in Miss Celie's pants". Ako Mitchell has the challenging role of Mister changing from the oppressive and unpleasant bully in Act 1 into the more mellow and caring old man at the end. 

Director Timoke Craig plays the production relatively straight as a concert in the round with the cast sat around the edge of the stage and the cameras focusing on the faces of the singers and only occasionally opens it up into a wider perspective to show Mark Smith's choreography and usually shot from end on rather than within the circle. The cameras are kept largely out of sight and the lighting defines the edges of the acting circle. The effect is that the different locations and passing of time is less clear with inconsistent use of graphics to help set the place and absence of large props. The social distancing also prevents the more intimate moments to be seen although the fight scene is cleverly captured to imply contact. 

It builds strongly over the last third to a powerful emotional reunion in which good triumphs over evil led by Celie's soaring vocals in the reprise of the title song, but it is not quite enough to overcome the disjointed difficult opening third of the show or shortness of some of the songs. But it is worth persevering with as its strong central message about abusive behaviour and how hope, trust and love can overcome the oppression is as powerful today as when it was set and written. In the era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matters this is period drama that clearly defines the roots of these issues and ultimately shines a light on how society must work to overcome them.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: online stream until 7th March | Price of Ticket: £20

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