sisters and mister

Aaliyah Zhané as Nettie, (left), Ako Mitchell as Mister and Me'sha Bryan as Celie. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

The Color Purple

Birmingham Hippodrome


The Color Purple has come of age. Three years after its inception the production has found its voice  ringing out loud and clear to create a powerful, moving and simply magnificent moment of theatre.

When it launched in 2019 this Curve Leicester and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production was a fine show, impressive enough to win Best Regional Production.

Three years and a pandemic on and fine has become exceptional, one of that rare breed of unmissable productions as The Color Purple gets set to leave home port to embark on its first national tour.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg's 1985 film, and adapted for the stage by another Pulitzer Prize winner, playwright Marsh Norma, this is a story of brutal abuse, violence, soul crushing despair, courage and above all hope.

We open in 1913 in the rural South of the USA. Slavery had ended in 1865 after the Civil War, but try telling that to young girls still traded like cattle, young girls such as Celie, brought to brilliant life by Me’sha Bryan.

Celie, still a young teen and having already borne two children by her abusive father, is traded as a wife to Mister, a brutal local land owner who sees his whip, and being a man, as the winner of any argument.


Me’sha Bryan as Celie

Mister wanted Celie’s sister Nettie, who he saw as the pretty one, but was persuaded instead to take Celie, who he saw as the ugly one, with a cow thrown in as a sweetener to seal the deal.

It was a condemnation to a life of drudgery and loveless, emotionless, obedient and mechanical sex where even contact with sister Nettie, played by Aaliyah Zhané, was banned – she might as well be dead, perhaps even was . . . until her emotional return in the final scene.

Ako Mitchell is just brilliant as Mister. He’s an imposing figure, a bully, arrogant, brooding and quietly sinister, ready to explode into violence at any moment. He really is a nasty piece of work who sees women and wives as mere chattels kept in line by being beaten into submission.

When his world collapses, to cheers from the audience, his epiphany moment in the quite masterful performance of Misters Nightmare and Mister’s Song has a power all of its own, you can feel his anguish and regret in every tortured note.

His son Harpo is given an innocent air by Ahmed Hamad as he slowly eases himself out from under his father’s oppresive thumb to find love in the ample arms of Sofia. He brings a light hearted side to the darker shades of the tale.

mister in anguish

Ako Mitchell in his powerful realisation of the brutal, uncaring life he has led

Anelisa Lamola is a Sofia you only mess with at your peril, she is a woman and a half, with a right hook Tyson Fury would be proud of – even macho bully Mister is wary. Her Hell No gloriously belted out with the sisters, is an anthem of girl power.

Then there is Shug Avery the local girl made good, who went off to Memphis as a singer and showgirl. She was Mister’s girl but she left him for the bright lights of fame. He still carries a torch for her, the flame burning bright when she is around and she can still wind him around her little finger. The bully tamed.

Bree Smith gives us a Shug who lights up a room as she walks in and like the rest of the cast, she can give a song some wellie belting out Push Da Button as she stars in Harpo’s Juke Joint, the nightclub he built in the woods.

But she has her tender moments such as her Too Beautiful for Words sung to Celie and the lovely duet with Celie, What About Love as well as the title anthem, The Colour Purple.

Shug and Celie become more than just friends, they become an item, except when men are around . . . . Like Oscar Wilde, Shug can resist anything but temptation.

Harpo’s Juke Joint gives us one of the liveliest numbers of the show, Brown Betty, with Harpo and Squeak starring, Squeak being the waitress-cum-singer Harpo has shacked up with when Sofia went off to her sisters when Harpo unwisely tried to follow his father’s advice on beating.

Hell no

Messing with Anelisa Lamola's Sofia reall is a case of hell, no

Sofia came back and . . . well, lets say there was a size and weight difference in the ensuing . . .  disagreement.

Jimand Allotey sort of squeaks as the excitable Squeak, I would swear much of what she says is at a range that can only be heard by dogs.

The highlight, showstopper number though belongs to Celie with the beautiful bittersweet ballad I’m Here which even got applause from conductor and musical director, Ian Oakley.

The seven piece band played their part as did the strong ensemble in the cast of 20 including a sort of hip hop Greek Chorus of Jarene, Doris and Darlene sung delightfully by Esme Laudat, Karen Mavundukure and Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah. They were fun and really smashed some really complex and challenging vocals.

Director Tinuke Craig told us that her first job interview when she was 16 was for a front of house position at The Hippodrome. In what turned out to be one of the best decisions the Hippodrome ever made, she didn’t get the job. On another day she could have been out in the foyer smiling and welcoming customers, instead she has returned in triumph with an exceptional production to her name.

Alex Lowde’s set is a giant clapperboard V-shaped wall with sliding panels to reveal rooms, porches, a store and even a jail while Joshua Pharo’s lighting does its job to create mood and highlight events and drama, He was also responsible for the scene setting videos washing the upper reaches of the walls.

As for sound, every voice made its mark, a show full of exceptional singing all well balanced by Tom Marshall’s sound design with Mark Smith's choreography keeping everything on track in a score that gave us blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and emotive ballads. Something for everyone and every mood.

Three years on The Color Purple is shining brighter than ever. To 17-09-22.

Roger Clarke


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