You could tell that the story of Celie, the brutalised heroine of The Colour Purple, was hitting its mark by the way a middle-aged white guy a row in front of me was squirming in his seat throughout. To be fair, there was palpable emotion from the entire audience, the anger and empathy at what is a painful history of poverty, neglect and racism was told on the vast Derngate stage.
Not what you might expect from a musical, the experiences of a young black woman in 1900s southern USA; raped and beaten by her father, having her children taken from her and forced to marry another brutal older man. But somehow it was engaging and uplifting, a testament to the skills of an all-black cast whose voices, songs and performances led to a standing ovation on press night.
Celie (an extraordinary, powerful performance from Me’Sha Bryan) is a child when we meet her, but already pregnant for the second time. She’s playing and singing alongside her only solace, her beautiful younger sister Nettie (Aaliyah Zhane), and her faith, as the ensemble, dressed for church, sing out, filling the whole theatre with an awesome gospel sound, accompanied by a live orchestra hidden in the pit.
Alice Walker’s novel was groundbreaking even in the 1980s, and the Spielberg film that followed, starring a young Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, is probably what people remember. In fact by total coincidence, when I came home to write this review, it was on TV, just as Winfrey’s Sofia, a matriarch unbound by her status, is humiliated and beaten on the orders of the white mayor and his mad racist wife.
In the musical version, we don’t see those white, racist characters but we feel their impact, as we feel the legacy of slavery on the community and the lot of the black woman at the mercy of poverty, misogyny, homophobia and circumstance.
It is an incredibly moving story, told over four decades with the first half dealing with Celie’s abandonment by all around her, including God – or so she thinks. In the second half comes a revelation and the ability to see beyond her own slavery and through the strength and solidarity of other women she finds her own voice. And boy, what a voice. For though she may be little, that voice is fierce. It’s a joy to hear the singing talent of Anelisa Lamola as Sofia, the seductive stage presence of Bree Smith’s Shug and the entire ensemble when they join voices. There’s light relief and genuine connection from Ahmed Hamad’s sympathetic Harpo and his love for feisty Sofia, while newcomer Jimand Allotey really brings voice to her character Squeak.
It is a long show, two and a half hours with a 20 minute interval, but my word, you get your money’s worth. The set, a huge wooden backdrop with moving panels for doors and protruding rooms – lit with projections of cornfields and nature – is perhaps a little too big, dominating the enormous Derngate stage and making the actors somewhat small. The orchestra is magnificent and it’s so good to hear live music as part of such a powerful show. But there were occasions, possibly due to my central position in the stalls, that I just couldn’t hear the dialogue of the vocalists as the music was so loud.
The musical is a revival of the award-winning Curve Leicester and Birmingham Hippodrome show, directed by Tinuke Craig pre-pandemic, and we are lucky to have it visit Northampton. If you can get hold of tickets before it moves on to Salford, it’s very much recommended.
The Colour Purple Musical runs until Saturday, October 8, at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate. Tickets and info available here.