Menier Chocolate Factory premiere of The Color Purple

The West End is home to a thriving theatre industry which attracts millions of fans from all around the world each year. A run in a West End theatre is the finishing line most productions hope to cross in the race for success and acclaim; West End shows are like the big-wigs of society sitting up top in their penthouses and quaffing champagne as they enjoy the dizzying heights their success has brought them. Just as with people though, success is generally earned by starting at the bottom and working your way up the ladder til you reach that top rung.

Only a handful of shows actually go straight in to the West End, and if they do, they usually have something behind them to boost those initial sales, such as a back-catalogue of songs by a popular artist or a well-known film they’ve been adapted from. The normal practice is for a show to try out in an off-West End theatre, or perhaps showcase themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or tour the UK. Building up enough support from the critics and audience members outside of the West End can earn a show their coveted ticket to the West End.

I recently wrote about the Chichester Festival Theatre which has seen a number of their productions transfer to the West End, such as with last year’s sell-out musical Sweeney Todd which enjoyed a widely acclaimed run at the Adelphi Theatre. There is another venue rather closer to home though which is also producing some top-notch theatre with plenty of West End potential: Menier Chocolate Factory

The Menier Chocolate Factory opened as a full-time producing house in 2004, having previously lain derelict since the 1980’s. Located on Southwark Street, the site was previously home to a 1870’s Menier Chocolate Company factory – hence the theatre’s name. It comprises of a 180-seat theatre, rehearsal space, bar and restaurant and has staged a variety of plays, musicals, love music and stand-up comedy in its nine-year existence. The award-winning venue has previously been labelled ‘one of London’s great theatre hopes” by The Daily Telegraph and it looks set to continue its success with the recent announcement that it is set to stage the European premiere of musical The Color Purple this summer.

The Color Purple is a Broadway musical that ran from 2005 to 2008 and was nominated for ten Tony Awards in that time. Based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is an inspiring family chronicle set in the 1930’s, a time when southern America is racially divided. The musical follows black teenager Celie as she journeys from childhood through joy and despair, anguish and hope to discover the power of love and life and features a score of assorted genres, including jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues. The award-winning Marsha Norman adapted the musical from its novel counterpart, with music and lyrics by Grammy Award-winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The London production, directed and designed by John Doyle, premieres at the Menier Chocolate on 15th July 2013 (previews from 5th July) and runs until 14th September 2013. Tickets go on sale next month.

UK theatre fans have greeted the news of the musical’s London appearance with high enthusiasm, and if the Menier Chocolate Factory’s past record is anything to go by, then The Color Purple is going to be another big tick on the list of previous productions staged there. Numerous shows have been produced to great acclaim at the fringe theatre, such as its other UK premiere productions which include Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! in 2005, Take Flight by Richard Maltby, David Shire and John Weidman in 2007 and Road Show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman in 2011. Incidentally, the latter was also directed by the Tony Award-winning John Doyle, who is now set to work his magic on The Color Purple. There are other shows which have done well at the Menier Chocolate Factory and gone on to do even better. The 2005 multi-award winning revival of Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine subsequently transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End in 2006 and won five Olivier Awards before transferring across the pond to Broadway in 2008. Sheridan Smith and Paul Keating led the 2006 production Little Shop of Horrors, which then enjoyed West End runs in both the Duke of York’s Theatre and the New Ambassadors Theatre before it closed in 2007. The revival of La Cage aux Folles, starring Phillip Quast and Douglas Hodge, was a popular choice in 2008, which led to a West End run at the Playhouse later that year. Then there was also A Little Night Music which featured the talents of Hannah Waddingham, Maureen Lipman and Alexander Hanson. It ran at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2009 and moved on to a West End run at the Garrick Theatre that same year.

In 2012, Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh was a huge hit for the Menier Chocolate Factory. The 1977 play ran there between March and April 2012 and then transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre in May, where it ran til September. It also won several awards in the 2013 Whatsonstage.com Awards, including Best Play Revival. Most recently, the revival of Merrily We Roll Along has brought the Menier Chocolate Factory great acclaim. The musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth opened there in November 2012, directed by the renowned Maria Friedman and was a sell-out success. Starring Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers, it is now set to play a limited 12-week West End season at the Harold Pinter Theatre in May 2013.

The Menier Chocolate Factory is one of the most dynamic and important off-West End theatres around at the moment. It consistently produces a selection of outstanding work, many of which have gone on to become highly successful in the West End too. The Color Purple is sure to be just one of the venue’s productions to look forward to this year.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 12th March 2013

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