A HIT FACTORY TURNS PURPLE

This Season: Isabel Lloyd's pick of the theatre openings is a British premiere with "the kind of actors other actors approve of"

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

When David Babani, artistic director of the West End seed-bed that is the Menier Chocolate Factory, first heard there was a musical version of Alice Walker’s "The Color Purple", he was, by his own admission, "incredibly snobby" about it. "I thought, I’m a theatre-lover. I won’t like it, it’s not for me." But after intense lobbying from the show’s original Broadway producer, Scott Sanders, Babani went to see a non-professional production in a huge half-empty theatre, two hours outside Los Angeles. He was hooked. "It was moving, beautiful, funny, relevantthere aren’t enough superlatives. Theatre should hold a mirror to everyday life, and this explored human endurance, friendship, loveall things absolutely relevant to our lives."

Well, yes. But Walker’s original is set in the black communities of America’s Deep South in the 1930s. That’s a fair way from 21st-century Southwark, where the Shard glitters like a pile of coins high above the foodies browsing Borough Market and the Shakespeare obsessives heading for the Globe. But Babani has worked hard to make it land for a British audience, appointing the director John Doylewhom he calls, approvingly, a "dour Scot"to strip out some of the lusher sentimentality, and telling the story economically with a six-strong band, a clean design and a lightly miked, all-British cast. There’ll be no stars, but the Menier has a knack of handing leading roles to the kind of actors other actors approve of, and this occasion is no different: the vital role of Shug Avery, poor Celie’s window into love, is played by the magnetic Nicola Hughes (above), last seen blasting the rafters in "Porgy and Bess" at the Savoy. The original "Color Purple" ran for two years on Broadway, but with the Menier’s record of transferring its productionsin the nine years since it opened, eight shows have gone into the West End, and three across the Atlanticit may not be too long before New York turns purple again. 

The Color Purple: the musical Menier Chocolate Factory, London, July 5th to Sept 14th

THEATRE AT A GLANCE

Circle Mirror Transformation (Rose Lipman Building, London, July 5th to Aug 3rd). A real treat, and a good omen for Vicky Featherstone’s reign at the Royal Court. Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton are two of the locals acting up and out in a community drama class, as Annie Baker’s playful, award-winning comedy gets an edge-of-town production.

Macbeth (Manchester International Festival, July 5th-20th; screen relay, July 20th). So foul and fair a parking bay I have not seen. Sir Ken Branagh’s return to Shakespeare after a ten-year absence sold out in minutes, months ago. But, at the time of writing, £8 still buys the opportunity to watch MIF’s main theatrical event from the Bridgewater Hall NCP car park.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Minerva, Chichester, Aug 15th to Sept 14th; Duchess, London, from Sept 18th). Brecht’s acute parable of fascist power and public complicity set in Depression-era Chicago returns to Chichester. Henry Goodman again takes on the appalling, fascinating Ui; if you missed it last time, don’t make the same mistake twice.

Romeo and Juliet (Richard Rodgers, New York, from Aug 24th). New York’s love affair with celebrity casting gets even more torrid, as Orlando Bloom, the one with the plaits in "Lord of the Rings", plays the first Broadway Romeo in almost four decades. David Leveaux directs, with black Capulets and white Montagues to underline Verona’s fractured heart.

A Season in the Congo (Young Vic, London, July 6th to Aug 17th). After only half-hitting the mark with "Trelawny of the Wells", the film director Joe Wright has a second go at theatre, with fresher material: a politically engaged, vivid retelling of the life of Patrice Lumumba from the mid-1960s, splashed across a broad canvas, and full of dance and music.

Isabel Lloyd is deputy editor of Intelligent Life and a former features editor on the Independent

Photograph Joss McKinley