The power of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s 2004 musical, based on Alice Walker’s seminal tale of black womanhood and self-actualisation, is near impossible to deny.
At its best, Tinuke Craig’s relatively stripped-back production is a glorious, immensely moving celebration of triumph over adversity. A luminous T’Shan Williams plays Celie, a woman denied her autonomy, her sexuality and her family, first by an abusive step-father, then an (initially) odious husband, Mister (Ako Mitchell). It is a full-blooded, achingly empathetic story of a woman coming into her own, tentatively at first, and then absolutely.
It takes a while to get going, though – there’s no doubt that the second half far surpasses the first’s too-stately pace (with the exception of the rip-roaring juke joint number Push da Button). There is a sense of cautiousness to the production initially – moments of pain and trauma are handled carefully. This is in part down to Craig’s creditable resistance to unnecessarily staging gendered violence, but the audience are kept at an arm’s length, slightly too far away to truly feel the emotional heft.
The quieter, non-musical moments between the bigger numbers can feel undercooked, lacking the energy and direction of set-piece numbers like Hell No! and Miss Celie’s Pants, feeling a little lost and swallowed up by Curve’s enormous stage.
Craig’s production shines when the entire company are together, when there is a palpable vitality emanating from the stage, aided by Mark Smith’s tactile and flexible choreography. Alex Lowde’s clean set design, with its sliding wooden panels and high walls quickly establishes the expanse and potential stretching before Celie, while simultaneously sequestering her, though Joshua Pharo’s projections are unnecessarily literal alongside his gorgeously vivid lights.
The production doesn’t fully coalesce until Joanna Francis’ steadily sensual Shug Avery enters the scene. And then, just as when Shug comes into Celie’s life, the production becomes looser, more carefree, and all the better for it.
Williams and Francis have a tender chemistry, and Craig and Williams handle Celie’s burgeoning, barely voiced but still-potent queerness with gentle generosity. If the Spielberg film adaptation downplayed the novel’s evident queer undertones, then Craig quietly but firmly reinstates it.
Williams is simply wonderful as the fulcrum of the piece, Celie, starting the show as seemingly the supporting character to her own life before finally stepping centre stage. Her face is brilliantly expressive, blossoming into a giddy smile after a kiss, folding in on itself after yet another degradation, and finally relaxing into a state of utter peace.
Her voice, quiet and hesitant initially, blooms and flourishes the further she goes in her journey of self-fulfilment, culminating in a desperately moving rendition of I’m Here.
It’s definitely not without flaws, but when it hits its high points, The Color Purple really soars.