You need to have read Alice Walker’s classic novel in order to fully appreciate this filmed version of the Leicester Curve’s acclaimed 2019 production. It’s demonstrated by the billing providing little to no information about its narrative other than its setting in “a racially divided Southern America”. While The Color Purple may lack a more profound emotional depth to the unfamiliar audience member, it remains a punchy tale of female empowerment in a time of sexism, phenomenally led by T’Shan Williams (Heathers).
For those who are also not clued up on the plot of the original book (adapted by Marsha Norman in this version), Williams plays Celie, a shy and timid woman separated from her sister Nettie (& Juliet’s Danielle Fiamanya) and sent to live with abusive husband Albert (Ako Mitchell). What follows is her being guided, and somewhat betrayed, by God and fellow women – most notably the expressive Shug Avery (Carly Mercedes Dyer), a more liberated and rebellious individual and Albert’s love interest.
Under the musical directorship of Alex Parker, the style of the numbers are a strong enhancement of the production’s themes and characters. Explorations of Christianity are soundtracked by towering gospel, while assertive individuals such as Shug and Sofia (Karen Mavundukure) are heightened in sharp and piercing soul. Albert, meanwhile, in his constant flip-flopping between remorseful and abusive (which, towards the end in the picnic scene, feels sudden and abrupt), has a voice which alternates between soft harmonies and harsh bellows.
Although pre-recorded, Tinuke Craig’s direction in having Williams address us directly goes some way to express Celie’s growing confidence. We are invited to indulge in her mischievousness, be a confidant for her feelings. The emotional struggle is there, but little in terms of the contextual. I’m told the original book is far darker, and with bright purple hues from Ben Cracknell (with few darkly lit scenes), there isn’t much of that in the musical version. Some of the impact, I imagine, would come with human contact which is prohibited in current times. The threats facing Celie and the other women do not feel particularly present – whether in a physical sense or something more atmospherical. Sofia’s abuse occurs off-stage, and Celie’s psychological harm doesn’t feel as pronounced as it could, or should, be.
With a sensational lead in Williams and an incredible supporting ensemble, the musical elements of The Color Purple make a toe-tapping impact, but such force feels slightly numbed in its tone.
The Color Purple: At Home is now streaming online via the Curve Leicester until 7 March. Captioned versions are available for all performances, excluding the evening show on 6 March, when the audio described performance will take place.
Production Images: Pamela Raith.
Disclaimer: I saw The Color Purple: At Home for free in exchange for a review of the production. I did not receive any payment for this review, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.