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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Menier Chocolate Factory


  Cynthia Erivo, Neil Reidman and Christopher Colquhoun/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Forget Charlie’s Chocolate Factory and make a bee-line for the Menier Chocolate Factory, where director John Doyle and a passionate and talented all-black cast have taken the 2005 Broadway musical The Color Purple by the scruff of its neck, shaken about a half hour off it, dumped all its sets and excavated the very heart and soul of Alice Walker’s best-selling Pulitzer prize-winning feminist novel of 1982. The result is a rousing, crowd-pleasing little triumph of a show that finds joy in material that is frequently grim and heartbreaking.

Top-heavy with plot, Walker’s journey from despair to deliverance takes place in the American South between 1914 and 1945 and tells the uplifting story of 14-year-old Celie (Cynthia Erivo), who, after being separated from her sister, suffers hardships from a father who raped her when she was fourteen years-old then gave her babies away;and constant abuse and humiliation from a brute she was forced to marry. In time, though, she discovers her true sexuality, her vocation, her self-worth and indomitability of spirit. It’s an uplifting odyssey, complete with a happy ending that’s somewhat fanciful, to be sure, except that you wouldn’t want it any other way.

Though the original Broadway production ran just over two years, its critical reception was mixed. As I never saw it, I cannot make comparisons. What I do know, though, is that it played in a theatre with a seating capacity of 1,760 compared with the Menier’s 190. Clearly, the smaller the space, the larger the impact and intensity. Emotions are magnified in close-up, as was evident  by the rapturous reception the show received –especially its star,Cynthia Erivo.

Her 11-o’clock number "I’m Here" had the audience, quite literally, stamping their feet in approval. And deservedly. In the course of the evening, the diminutive Ms Erivo, who on several occasions is described by her brutish husband Mister (Christopher Colquhoun) as “ugly,” visibly grows in stature and when finally she finds belief in herself as well as  the confidence to say, ”I’m beautiful,” you don’t for a second disagree. Indeed, some members of the audience, clearly choked with emotion, even called out, “Yes!” It was that kind of an evening.

Ms. Erivo is supported by a terrific cast that also includes the aforementioned and  charismatic Christopher Colquhon, Nicola Hughes as a luscious barroom singer (and the real object of Celie’s love), Abiona Omonu as Celie’s attractive friend Nettie and Sophie Nomvete as the feisty Sofia.

The music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray is an eclectic mix of gospel, jazz, blues and pop that skillfully captures the mood and spirit of black musical expression in the Deep South between the wars. It’s not the catchiest score you’ll ever hear, but it’s effective.

Playwright Marsha Norman’s book – relying, as it frequently does, on a kind of shorthand recitative to encompass 30 years of plot in just over two hours – ticks most of the emotional boxes on offer. And director John Doyle’s set design – a few chairs and a bare stage painted in various shades of beige and brown (no purple in sight) – helps keep the mood sombre yet, somehow, also joyous.

Ho-hum, the Chocolate Menier has yet another massive hit. So what’s new?


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