Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
There’s been a backlash in recent years over our obsession with beauty. While the YouTube generation is still mesmerised by images and lifestyle blogs, vlogs and the rest, the public at large is finally tiring of the pressure for perfection.
So it was with some trepidation that I sat down last night to watch Violet, an award-winning musical from America, making its debut over here at London’s Charing Cross Theatre, that tells the story of one dirt poor girl’s quest for beauty. Thankfully there’s a lot more to Violet than the superficial whims of an orphan wanting Cyd Charisse’s legs, Bardot’s breasts and the luminescent skin of Grace Kelly.
Leaving a homestead in deepest South Carolina on a Greyhound bus, Violet goes on a journey of self-discovery to look for a miracle to transform her life. The young girl had been hideously disfigured by her father’s axe in an accident at home. She has lost her self-esteem and believes that her unnatural ugliness has blighted her life.
Now that her father has died, leaving her some money, the devout teen’s only thoughts are to travel over 900 miles to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to receive a beautiful new face from the divine hands of a TV evangelist.
Last night there was still a bit of me wanting to throw my arms around the youngster and reassure her that real beauty comes from within and not with face-lifts, fake hair/boobs/nails/brows and tango tans but I understood her dilemma. This is America 1964, a country blighted and ugly, wearing its own scars of racism, bigotry, poverty, and social and economic injustice.
On her Greyhound Violet meets Flick, a sergeant in the army and the first black man she has ever talked to. It soon becomes apparent that they are both outsiders struggling to find a place in an unforgiving world. Also on the bus is fellow soldier, Monty, a testosterone hunk and tomcat, and the trio fall in together, playing cards, drinking and sharing snacks during stopovers.
Monty clearly has only one thing on his mind and he’s not fussed about Violet’s scar. To him she’s easy meat. Flick, worried about the race issue, resists her but it’s obvious that his feelings run deeper than a one-night stand.
But when she gets to Tulsa will the preacher be able to summon up God’s power to heal her scars or will the answer lie closer to home?
Violet comes with an exemplary pedigree, with music from Jeanine Tesori, and libretto from Brian Crawley, and it has bagged a number of awards in the States.
Like Tesori’s other current West End hit, Caroline, Or Change, the musical examines class, race and grief at a pivotal time in America’s history.
But little things let it down. The accents are sometimes so thick that it is difficult to understand the dialogue.
And director Shuntaro Fujita’s decision to use traverse staging (with a revolve) in a notoriously awkward auditorium, only partially works.
I couldn’t help but notice that most of the scenes appeared to be played out more to one side of the audience (which, last night, contained all the theatre critics) rather than the other (who saw a lot of actors’ backs).
And there is hardly any character development beyond Violet herself and then it is sketchy at best.
We learn next to nothing about Monty or Flick, while the rest of the cast are under-utilised, especially the always excellent James Gant.
Kaisa Hammarlund is no shrinking Violet. She’s terrific, turning in a vibrant, pugnacious performance.
Her Violet is a girl consumed by faith and born out of pain yet she’s full of confidence despite the effects of her debilitating and unsightly wound.
I couldn’t see from my position whether she has been made up with a prosthetic scar or whether Fujita has left it to the audience’s imaginations. Either way Hammarlund is luminous, her rich voice full of optimism and hope.
There is a knockout cameo from Kenneth Avery-Clark who throws in a bit of Donald Trump alongside his Billy Graham, as the preacher.
He’s so convincing that he almost had me shouting out a few hallelujahs.
And Amy Mepham, one of three girls playing the young Violet, is a real find. And incredible singing voice.
But I liked it. The story is heartfelt and hopeful, the songs are infectiously good with a mix of hillbilly, honky-tonk, gospel and traditional country, and the show features powerful performances from the entire ensemble.
Violet plays at the Charing Cross Theatre until April 6.
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