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Purlie review at Bridewell London

Though London has already been galvanised this year by Stratford East’s The Big Life and, to a lesser extent, by the Haitian musical Vodou Nation, seen at Hackney Empire, black musicals are still a comparative rarity in these parts. It is therefore refreshing to find the Okai Collier Company pushing the envelope once again by unearthing a 1970 Broadway hit Purlie, and giving the show its belated British premiere 34 years later at the Bridewell.

It would be even more exciting if one could say that they’ve unearthed a neglected gem, but this musical – written in broad comic brushstrokes of characterisation and racial stereotyping – splutters and stalls every time it’s not singing or dancing. It betrays its origins as a 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, by Ossie Davis (who co-wrote the musical’s book with original producer-director Philip Rose and lyricist Peter Udell) at every turn or detour into lengthy book scenes.

These tell a convoluted tale of a black preacher (a suavely polished Tee Jaye) who seeks to buy a church in a rural Georgia town, but the white plantation owner, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (John Lyons), has sinister ideas of his own for the place.

Fortunately, this production is thrillingly energised every time there is an opportunity for gospel song and especially dance. With inspired choreography from Mykal Rand – who also appears in the show – and an enormously accomplished cast, the songs are punchily performed, with particularly notable contributions from the feisty Joanna Francis and a trio of amazingly athletic boy dancers.

Production Information

Bridewell, London , September 2-October 2

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose, Peter Udell, music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell
Omar F Okai
The Okai Collier Company in association with the Bridewell Theatre
Cast includes
Tee Jaye, Joanna Francis, John Lyons, Victoria Wilson James
Running time
2hrs 30mins

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