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The Color Purple - Northampton Review

Theatre at its best will take you on a journey that makes you think, makes you feel and connects you. It stays with you and lasts in your mind long after the performance is over.  This dazzling production of The Color Purple delivers that on every level as it goes on its first-ever UK tour.

The cast of The Color Purple. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Director Tinuke Craig's mesmerising production returns to the stage after runs at Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome in 2019 (both theatres co-produce the tour) and a streamed concert staging in 2022. Alice Walker's seminal novel is given a life-affirming staging that Craig and the team master this staging with so much heart and skill.

The coming-of-age story follows sisters Celie and Nettie in early 20th century America. Once the pair are separated we centre on Celie and the battles she must overcome. She faces racism, domestic abuse, poverty, sexism, separation from her children and her own feelings of love. It's rightly at times quite a tough watch at times but ultimately the journey is of a young woman finding her self-worth and self-resilience. 

Me'sha Bryan takes on Celie and puts her whole heart into the performance. She is sensational to watch as she conveys all the emotions of the character. She hooks you right in and you feel everything that she feels. Her smile is a beacon of light that you tie your heart to especially in the latter sequences of the piece. Bryan's stunning vocals further carry those emotions, her vocals fit perfectly into every number and feeling. The power she brings to the big solo number 'I'm Here' leaves you wowed. Bryan is simply outstanding.

Early in the piece Celie sacrifices herself to a relationship with Mister (Albert) to spare her sister so she can go and become a teacher. It's Mister who abuses Celie both mentally and physically including hiding letters from Nettie that brings Celie to believe she's dead. Ako Mitchell takes on the role with real command and stage presence. He looms as this quite horrible figure that eventually unravels and heads towards some form of redemption, it's those scenes where Mitchell is at his best, he becomes a completely different figure and whilst you may not truly feel he deserves that redemption there is a real emotional connection with those scenes.

(L-R) Ako Mitchell (Mister), Jimand Allotey (Squeak), Bree Smith (Shug Avery), Anelisa Lamola (Sofia), Me'sha Bryan (Celie) and Neil Patterson (Ol' Mister). Photo by Manuel Harlan
Nettie is played with real warmth by Aaliyah ZhanéZhané is a warm presence who you long for that reunion and connection back with Celie and once that (SPOILER ALERT) reunion happens the emotions poor out. The tears flow on stage and in the audience. It's a beautiful moment that stays with you. 

Bree Smith delights as Shug Avery the club singer who has connections to both Celie and Mister. Smith carries the role with strength creating a beautiful relationship with Bryan's Celie. The blurred lines of friendship or something more are portrayed really well and with real feeling on both sides, Smith tremendously nails the character. Anelisa Lamola gives a masterclass in performance as Sofia. Lamola carries strength, heart, feel and often no bullshit attitude. After Sofia is beaten she becomes a slightly broken figure and it's portrayed so well. Ahmed Hamad impresses as Harpo, with warmth and a good heart.

The trio of Esme Laudat, Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah and Karen Mavundukure as Jarene, Darlene and Doris delight as a vocal church-going trio who bring some light to the piece breaking up scenes with firecracker vocals. 

It's undoubtedly one of the strongest casts across the board, every member of the company is top-tier talent and the vocals are heavenly. As the piece builds to the concluding reprise of the titular song the voices blend beautifully and the piece soars to its conclusion. The voices are full of power and get you directly in your heart. Voices that are you can just be taken in by and uplift you.

Musically the piece is full of gospel-enthused numbers as Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray's score is brought to life by the spellbinding company and 7 fantastic musicians with Ian Oakley as musical director and Alex Parker providing musical supervision.

Alex Lowde's set design incorporates the feeling of home and centres on Celie, who is rarely off stage. The wooden walls open up to bring the pieces of scenery on and also combine with video and lighting designed by Joshua Pharo to set the scenes superbly. It's often quite minimalistic but this allows for the emotions of the characters to fill the space. Tom Marshall's sound allows for clarity in the voices, in the music and in the general soundscape for the production.

The Color Purple will take you on an emotional journey and it doesn't shy away from the darker elements of abuse or trauma but its message of hope and love gives you the payoff at the end. It's expertly brought to the stage by a fantastic creative team and crew and a phenomenal company. Powerful. Everything brilliant about live theatre. It's good for the soul.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Color Purple plays at Royal and Derngate until Saturday 8th October. Tickets are available from The tour then visits The Lowry in Salford (11th - 15th Oct), Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff (18th - 22nd Oct), Mayflower Theatre in Southampton (25th - 29th Oct) and Theatre Royal Norwich (1st - 5th November). Do not miss it.

(L-R) Monifa James (Ensemble), McCallum Connell (Ensemble), Alex Okoampa (Ensemble), Neil Patterson (Ol' Mister), Bree Smith (Shug Avery) and Me'sha Bryan (Celie). Photo by Manuel Harlan

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