The Color Purple review – musical romance rings hollow from a distance

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Covid guidelines and clunky camerawork sadly undermine the ebullient performances in this digital adaptation of Alice Walker’s modern classic

It felt auspicious when the legal action that had hung over this musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel since 2019, and involved an inflammatory mix of Christianity and homophobia, was resolved just in time for its first press performance.

But the Curve theatre’s artistic director, Nikolai Foster, did also flag up the fact that this revived co-production with Birmingham Hippodrome had only had two weeks to reimagine itself as a staged concert on screen. For all the jazzy warmth of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s music, alongside the magnificent singing – every voice in this ensemble is a powerhouse – the hasty re-envisioning shows.

While there is a keen sense of musicality, the theatricality and emotional drama is not there. This is a story of lesbian love between beaten-down Celie and free spirit Shug Avery, as well as of sisterhood and violence against women, but social distancing guidelines seem to gut it of its passions: Celie and Shug do not touch, hug or kiss and their relationship feels chaste, even more so than in Steven Spielberg’s sentimentalised 1985 film.

Nor does the rapport between the sisters build in intensity: Celie and Nettie are forced apart and spend most of the drama yearning to be reunited, but their meeting at the end feels underwhelming at two metres apart. Perhaps this is a story that requires intimacy, proximity and movement to bring it alive. Without those elements, and at over two hours running time, it feels overly long and emotionally remote.

Marsha Norman’s book seems to blunt the novel’s sharp edges as well; Celie’s sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and the marital terror she experiences with Mister is suggested or occurs off stage, rather than being fully confronted. The white-on-black violence against the indomitable Sofia is reported by her estranged husband, Harpo (Simon-Anthony Rhoden), rather than shown, which takes away the power of her storyline.

Exudes strength and sass ... Karen Mavundukure as Sofia in The Color Purple.
Exudes strength and sass ... Karen Mavundukure as Sofia in The Color Purple. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It is a shame, because the actors are driven and dynamic, all suited to their parts: T’Shan Williams’s Celia has a winningly innocent exuberance and Mister is well played by Ako Mitchell. Karen Mavundukure exudes strength and sass as Sofia, while Carly Mercedes Dyer oozes character as Shug Avery.

Under Tinuke Craig’s direction, actors perform on a circular, revolving stage. While Craig’s last production, Crave, also involved a stage revolve, that seemed to serve a clear artistic purpose; it is not nearly as effective here. There are no sets or backdrops to bring atmosphere or augment the drama but there are some attempts at aerial filming and a few instances of film imagery overlaid on to the action on stage, of the kind seen in the Curve’s production of Sunset Boulevard, but it is not as sophisticated and all too spare.

Cameras capture the mise-en-scene and zoom into closeups but the balance between the two does not seem right, and we miss what little choreography there is without gaining intimacy. Even as a staged concert, it feels too static. Walker’s book takes epistolary form and the letter format is picked up in the second half of the show, with Celie spending several inert scenes reading out letters.

There are smaller triumphs: a gossiping, eye-rolling trio of church singers who perform their snarky commentaries from the sidelines. Walker’s exploration of spirituality is grappled with, too, from Celia’s religious obedience and then her anger (“If God ever listened to a poor coloured woman the world would be a different place”) to Shug’s concept of the divine (“God is inside you and everything else”).

These are not enough to lift the show out of its longueurs, and it is frustrating to see so many shining elements within the performance – the strength of the acting, the phenomenal voices – not coming together to become the soulful and sparky musical that this should be.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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