T'Shan Williams as Celie and Danielle Fiamanya as sister Nettie. Pictures: Manuel Harlan.

The Color Purple

Birmingham Hippodrome


On the face of it Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel is hardly the stuff of musical theatre with its catalogue of rape incest, sexual abuse and brutality in all but the final couple of scenes, but it is Stephen Bray’s music which largely carries it off.

We have gospel, boogie, soul, swing, jazz, blues and some stunning solos led by T’Shan Williams as the leading character Celie. What a voice that lady has, something to treasure. She raises the roof with her big number I'm Here.

Not that she is alone mind. Joanna Francis as the jazz and blues singer Shug Avery gives it some wellie with Push Da Button, a soft touch with the ballad Too Beautiful for Words  and has a fine, gentle duet with Celie in What About Love. She also gets to sing the title track The Color Purple.

Then there is Albert, known by those who cower under him as Mister. The brutal farmer who wanted Celie’s sister Nettie as his wife, but, denied her, took Celie instead because her father threw in a free cow as a sweetener. Buy one, get a cow free!

In truth Ako Mitchell seems a little uneasy in the role of baddie – he does it well mind, no complaints there – but he seems much more at home as a reformed, man attempting to make restitution in the latter part. His solo Celie’s Curse as his life crumbles around him is beautifully sung, full of emotion and anguish.


Ako Mitchell as the broken Mister, full of anguish and despair

I must admit I came into this sort of, well colour blind, having never read the book, nor seen the film, so the production had to stand on it’s own two feet, there was no filling in detail from familiarity or memory, and on the whole it managed that admirably.

It is set in Georgia, the Deep South, Celie was 14 and already had two children by her brutal father by 1910, the babies disposed of by her father at birth, and when she is married off as a teen, she lived a life of abuse, mechanical sex and drudgery under Albert.

We follow her life for the next 35 years or so, her relationship with Shug, Albert’s long time mistress, her friendship with Sophia, played by Karen Mavundukure, another with a big voice, the larger than life wife of Albert’s son, Harpo, played by Simon-Anthony Rhoden.

The pair bring some light relief to what, in truth, is a somewhat distressing and depressing tale, even bringing in some knockabout fun when the estranged Sofia comes to Harpo’s Juke Joint opening and clashes with his new girlfriend wannabe singer Squeak, a high octane, and high pitched performance from Pérola Congo.

The clash becoming a girl on girl fight to which the crowd in Harpo’s club sing Uh-ho, a jazzy blues number with plenty of Uh-hos, led by Jarene, Doris and Darlene, played by Landi Oshinowo, Danielle Kassaraté and Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah.

The trio act as a sort of Greek chorus, amusingly filling in, imparting thoughts and observations between scenes, in a clever device to keep things moving along.

greek chorus

Greek chorus, Georgia style: Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah as Darlene, Danielle Kassarate as Doris and Landi Oshinowo as Jarene.

There is good support from Danielle Fiamanya as sister Nettie, who heads off to Africa as a missionary, Geoff Aymer as Albert’s ex-slave father and Jo Servi who belts out the gospel as the Preacher in the opening and pops up later as Shug’s new husband Grady – which puts both Albert and Celie’s noses out of joint.

And a mention for Delroy Brown as Pa, Birmingham born and now living in Leicester it is a home from home for him, as this is a joint production between The Curve in Leicester and Birmingham Hippodrome. Incidentally, Delroy, who switched from a career in nursing some 20 years ago, is also a professional drummer of 30 years standing with some big names on his CV.

The ensemble cast are just wonderful displaying some outstanding vocal work with harmonies and individual moments in every piece, supported by musical director Alex Parker and an excellent eight-piece band.

The technicals in this show are also impressive with Alex Lowde’s setting a stage high clapperboard wall angled out in two wings from the centre inset with two huge panels which are raised to present stages within a stage with house fronts that glide out, a shop front, changing cubicles when Celie opens her pants shop with her new found freedom, a church, juke joint – whatever the script demands, all done seamlessly and swiftly which means the stage crew must be working their socks off back there.

Joshua Pharo has added video to his lighting plot, with feint images of corn waving in the breeze, trees and African grasslands projected on the wall, adding an extra dimension to scenes, while his lighting is sympathetic and helps to convey feelings and emotions – although I was not too keen on the disco style flashing lights on up-tempo and gospel numbers, Looked a bit more like a fault on the board rather than synchronised with the beat, but perhaps that is just me.

Tom Marshall’s sound was well balanced but there was a small issue here in that some of the dialogue was difficult to pick up. The sentiments and sense could still be followed but the words were being lost.

But all in all, this is a show with moments of brilliance with director Tinuke Craig producing a well-paced, easy to follow story, which by the limitations of the stage, and a musical, is a simplified telling, with neither the depth nor scope afforded to a film or novel. Simplified, maybe, but done well to create a powerful production, needing no knowledge of book or film to know what was going on and with enough emotional pull to make you feel for the characters.

The end is a bit sugary, Celie’s two long lost children returning from Africa with Nettie, Albert reformed and proposing real marriage to Celie – the audience managed, bizarrely, to laugh at that particular poignant dramatic scene – and Shugs back. But after the miserable life Celie has had so far, it would be hard hearted to the extreme to deny her a happy ending.

Whether it is true to the book, or follows the path of the Spielberg film I have no idea, but does it work as a musical? A spontaneous standing ovation by the audience suggests it does.

It is a harrowing opening and we get two thirds through before there is any sign of relief. Celie’s spirit shines, albeit dimly at times, through all the dark days but in the end this is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and you can’t argue with that. To 20-07-19.

Roger Clarke


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