Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
After a traumatising accident in her childhood leaves Violet with a facial disfigurement, she becomes obsessed with an Oklahoma televangelist who she believes can heal her scars and make her as beautiful as the movie stars she idolises. Hopping onto a Greyhound bus in South Carolina, she heads off on a cross-country pilgrimage, joining forces with a pair of poker-playing soldiers on the way.
Originally debuting Off-Broadway in 1997, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s tragic yet heartening musical is remarkable in its quiet, unassuming depiction of what is slowly revealed to be a deeply entrenched self-loathing. The immense disaster of Violet’s accident and the subsequent isolation she experiences, are totally at odds with the plot’s tranquil pace.
The accompanying bluesy score only further emphasises the musical’s strange, indistinct tone. Making good use of flashbacks, the plot showing Violet before the accident, together with the subsequent toll it takes upon her and her widower father. But the whole musical feels strangely nostalgic; like a series of diary entries tied together by a purgatorial bus ride.
In the titular role, and making a short hop across the Thames from Tesori’s Fun Home that recently played at the Young Vic, Kaisa Hammarlund glows with desperate hope in a remarkable portrayal of the warring pain and optimism that drives Violet. Hammarlund makes it agonisingly clear that Violet is scarred not only physically, but emotionally and is never free of her “Otherness”.
Her scarred face, although unseen by the audience, hangs phantasmal over every second of the musical. She sits hunched and walks with a clomping, stoic gait. It is as if she has learned to detract others from her scar by cultivating an image of brashness, and self-admitted insignificance; she controls how she is perceived by others in order to protect herself from the would-be tormentors that she encounters day-to-day.
It is therefore a shame that the musical is less generous to its supporting characters. The dynamic between Violet and the two soldiers she befriends is certainly interesting, as it evolves from a bickering rapport to an uneasy love triangle, but despite a couple of excellent performances by Jay Marsh and Matthew Harvey, their insertion into the story feel rushed and underwritten.
By the time director Shuntaro Fujita’s slick and sun-kissed production draws to a close, it’s impossible not to root for Violet’s happiness, but the plot falters in its hurry to achieve a neat ending, resulting in a finale which, albeit hopeful, remains wholly unsatisfying.
Runs until 6th AprilReviewed by Charlotte O’GrowneyPhoto credit: Scott Rylander