Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel about Celie, a young black girl living in 1930s Georgia, isn’t the most obvious story to make into a musical. It’s a searing portrait of oppression, told from the point of view of a girl who is raped, abused, lied to, beaten and manipulated from a young age by the men around her.
But this Tony-nominated musical, which is performed for the first time in Europe at the Menier Chocolate Factory, taps into the qualities that made both the novel and Steven Spielberg’s film so popular, and it emerges as the tale of an everywoman triumphing over adversity, and a testament to the power of hope.
John Doyle’s canny direction has the wooden whitewashed stage bare except for some chairs at the back, which are used as seats and workmen’s tools. It leaves room for the story to unfold simply through a formidable 17-strong ensemble, who perform Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Allee Willis’s wonderful and satisfyingly varied score of roof-lifting gospel, rhythmical jazz and throaty blues with remarkable clout.
Although there’s certainly the opportunity here, Marsha Norman’s script isn’t sentimental. There’s a lot packed in, and not much space left for detailed character development, which means it occasionally feels a smidgen lightweight. But the character that matters, Celie, is sharply written and her transformation from underdog to stable, strong-willed woman is subtle and convincing.
The petite Cynthia Erivo gives a deliberately slow-build performance as Celie. It’s a superb turn with a spine-tinglingly great climax that betrays her beguiling and impressive talent.
Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery and Sophia Nomvete as Sofia provide strong support, and both play up the piece’s humour well. Hughes in particular is excellent and brings out the allure of bisexual nightclub singer Shug, while also baring her fractured, wayward soul. Together, the three of them drive an ultimately uplifting and heart-capturing evening.
By Daisy Bowie-Sell