Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
‘Kaisa Hammarlund stars in a musical by Jeanine Tesori’ is one of the latest entries on my list of phrases that will definitely get me to buy theatre tickets. I mean come on guys, the last time it happened was Fun Home. And that was an absolute triumph for both of these exceptionally talented women.
Whilst Fun Home was something I’d heard of and immediately wanted to see regardless of cast, venue, ticket price or anything else, the newest collaboration between the two is something I’d not heard of at all: the musical Violet.
The plot of Violet – girl with severe facial scarring goes on a cross-USA bus trip to be healed by a TV evangelist, meets a boy and discovers that she never needing healing in the first place – is hardly going to win any awards on its own. The way that it is told in this show, however, elevates it to something really quite lovely, with huge emotional impact and a surprising timeliness. Brian Crawley’s book and lyrics are sweet and tender, yes, but they’re also never uncomplicated or trite.
There’s an unflinching honesty to them too, which allows him to capture feelings of being an outsider and being ‘ugly’. The pressure of female beauty standards (regardless of any scars you may or may not have) is never far away and Crawley succeeds in both showing how ridiculous they are and how deeply felt they are too, and what the impacts of that can be. Mercifully, he also rings some darkish humour from this line of thought (I loved the line that went something like ‘Ingrid Bergman has made a career out of good cheekbones’).
Tesori’s music is a gorgeous hotchpotch of styles of the American south: country, bluegrass, blues, soul and gospel. The score really reflects the literal journey that Violet goes on as well as the idea that the people she meets along the way (love interests Monty and Flick) are introducing newness and change into Violet’s life. It’s a really clever and successful piece of musical storytelling.
On top of which there are some just absolutely great songs. My favourite is All to Pieces which for me represents the best example of music, lyrics and story coming together as Violet takes Flick and Monty through the individual bits of her body she’d like to change. It’s funny at first, but quickly becomes more sinister. Never has the phrase ‘love me to pieces’ seemed so malignant.
Violet is a co-production between Charing Cross and Japan’s Umeda Arts Theatre, directed by Shuntaro Fujita. Fujita has a very clear and confident idea of what this story can be in today’s climate and directs with a real sense of care for both the characters and the show. For me, the most impactful artistic decision he takes here is not to show Violet’s scar – there is no trick makeup or facial prosthesis to be found on his set. Although it took me a minute to adjust to this, ultimately I felt it gave the story a hundred times the resonance than it would otherwise have had. It plays up and draws out the idea of the ludicrous weight of beauty standards that the book and lyrics also examine. A simple step (and good god I hope it was intentional and not just that someone forgot to put them on the actors in the performance I saw!) but an effective one.
Morgan Large’s set – and, I gather, reworking of the performance space in the theatre) is also very effective, bringing the audience in and making great use of a revolve to really show off the cast. Howard Hudson’s lighting is great too, with an interestingly frequent and ballsy use of darkness as well as light. It’s a good looking thing, this show.
Finally there’s the cast, who are excellent to a man, woman and child. I’ve already mentioned that Kaisa Hammarlund having another go at Jeanine Tesori was the main reason I booked to see this show and she did not disappoint. She’s perfectly cast in the titular role: brave, honest, funny and heartbreakingly vulnerable with a voice that owns every note. Easily worth the price of a ticket alone. Jay Marsh, as love interest Flick, is fantastic too. He absolutely nails the cocky swagger of a soldier and the conflict inherent in being a young black man in the American south in the late 1960s, without ever over cooking it. He also has a kickass, achingly soulful voice. In some of the smaller roles, each with a massive solo though, Anjelica Allen and Simbi Akande absolutely shine. These girls can SING. There’s morally ambiguous charisma and fun from Kenneth Avery-Clark as the Preacher too (and I love that the show stops short of simplistically making him a villain or anything close to it).
For a show which I didn’t know at all and had no expectations of, I was really taken with Violet. It’s a sweet but uncompromising show, immaculately performed and cleverly staged, that hits you in all of the feels. It will also make you feel happy, and who doesn’t need that in January?
Violet is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6th April.
I sat in D10 in the stalls for this show, of which I saw the penultimate preview, and paid £20 via an offer from WhatsOnStage. The seat would normally cost £35.