Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Come From Away @ The Phoenix Theatre

Come From Away @ The Phoenix Theatre

For a musical about international relations across the Atlantic, it's fitting that the production team of Come From Away - including a long list of producers - come from both sides of the pond. With book, music and lyrics written by Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show won at the 71st Tony Awards in 2017 and has toured extensively across the US, Canada and Ireland, before finally arriving in London's West End. It's a timely, vital production.

Colloquially known as 'the 9/11 musical', Come From Away is an ode to collaboration and a celebration of community. It's based on the true story of a small town in Newfoundland off the coast of Canada whose residents, during the terrible events of 9/11, cared for over 6,500 strangers who were left stranded when their planes were diverted. These 'come from aways' were of all nationalities and, over the course of a week, were all welcomed equally, given food and shelter, and lived in a safe haven in the midst of a global crisis.

Fittingly, this is a collective story with no single narrator or standout character. The town of Gander became a microcosm of the world and the narrative of Come From Away is a collage of interwoven stories that mirrors global diversity. There are moments of racism and misogyny, but above all defiance and compassion are at the heart of the plot.

The effect is to humanise a world-changing event, to highlight the everyman, the small town folk, the otherwise unrecognised heroes. We see snatches of small moments and interactions that seamlessly blend into a broader picture, just as the folk score segues from song to dialogue and brings the whole cast together as one.

This is very much an ensemble piece. Twelve actors flit frequently between multiple roles and accents as both Newfoundlanders and 'come from aways', further cementing that sense of community. It is a remarkable achievement by them all, especially in the beautifully balanced choral singing and cleverly choreographed movement. That said, Rachel Tucker is given the standout song of the show, "Me And The Sky", which she powers out in a stunning rendition, and Cat Simmons is touchingly mournful singing "I Am Here".

Where this type of show could all too easily fall into tweeness or overwrought melodrama, Come From Away deftly sits in between. It's moving yet uplifting, tragedy balanced with lightheartedness and comedy, while the snappy dialogue and short interlinking scenes ensure it moves at a swift pace over its relatively short runtime with no interval to break the flow. In short, it's a heartwarming, feelgood musical that revels in the very best of humanity: the kindness of strangers. And in times of crisis, that's exactly what we need.

5/5

Watch: Come From Away runs at The Phoenix Theatre until September.

Come From Away @ The Phoenix Theatre
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Saturday, 16 February 2019

New Music Friday 15/02/19

Cardi B & Bruno Mars - Please Me

Cardi B & Bruno Mars - Please Me

Cardi won big at the Grammy's last week but there's no pausing for breath. She's back with another new single, bringing Bruno Mars along for the ride following last year's Finesse. There's something of a gender flip to this song that I am all for: female rapper in the verses, male vocalist in the chorus. Mars sounds positively orgasmic, while Cardi is sexually aggressive in her verses - "dinner reservations like the pussy you're gon' eat out". The sexy 90s production ensures this all remains palatable, but you'll need a cold shower afterwards.

Add to playlist.



Jessie Ware - Adore You

Jessie Ware - Adore You

Jessie Ware returned last year with the house vibes of Overtime, her first new track since the release of third album 'Glasshouse' the year before. For Adore You she returns to the club, co-written and produced by Metronomy's Joe Mount. There's a bit of a modern Robyn flavour, but Ware's cooing, breathless vocals shine in the romantic chorus.

Add to playlist.



Maisie Peters - Stay Young

Maisie Peters - Stay Young

On paper, cutesy singer songwriter Maisie Peters is little more than a John Lewis Christmas ad singer. But Stay Young has a fun pop feel in its ode to youth and growing up, held together by that "stay young" hook. She's set for big things this year and this track sets her up for chart and radio success apart from her previous folky beginnings.

Worth a listen.



YUNGBLUD with Halsey feat. Travis Barker - 11 Minutes

YUNGBLUD with Halsey feat. Travis Barker - 11 Minutes

Halsey lends her vocals to this emo alt-rock track from Doncaster's YUNGBLUD. 11 Minutes is a tragic duet full of contradictions - "you're the best I've ever had / you're the worst I've ever had" - that reflects the confusion of love. It wouldn't be a stretch to see this climbing up the charts, triggering a return to nu-metal.

Worth a listen.



Zedd & Katy Perry - 365

Zedd & Katy Perry - 365

If Katy Perry wanted to make a splash, she should've come back with a decent pop banger. Instead, she sings on this flat, tired Zedd track that will go nowhere.

Don't bother.



Chaka Khan - Like A Lady

Chaka Khan - Like A Lady

The second song to be released from Chaka Khan's new album 'Hello Happiness', this is classy and timeless. Futuristic swishes and synths rub shoulders with an infectious disco beat, string stabs and that incredible vocal. Listen to the rest of the album for more sexy space disco.

Worth a listen.



Foals - On The Luna

Foals - On The Luna

On The Luna follows the well received Exits as indicative of Foals' forthcoming double album. The chugging, rhythmic guitars will have you dancing like few rock songs, the time signature changes will keep you on your toes, and the twinkling synths will have you ascending to the stars. Foals are sounding as strong as ever on this new material.

Add to playlist.



Avril Lavigne feat. Nicki Minaj - Dumb Blonde

Avril Lavigne feat. Nicki Minaj - Dumb Blonde

After the honesty of her comeback single Head Above Water, this just reeks of desperation: simultaneously a reminder of her punk-pop beginnings while trying to stay relevant, playing with - yet relying on - outdated stereotypes.

Don't bother.



Years & Years, MNEK - Valentino

Years & Years, MNEK - Valentino

Two queer icons of pop collaborating on a gay pop song about "fuck boys", with a title perfectly timed for this week. It's a fun bop, especially with the Spanish guitars, even if it doesn't quite live up to the best of their individual work.

Worth a listen.



Lizzo - Cuz I Love You

Lizzo - Cuz I Love You

This might not have a flute solo, but this soulful new love song proves the power of Lizzo's vocals unashamedly.

Worth a listen.



Thursday, 14 February 2019

Ariana Grande - thank u, next


Ariana Grande - thank u, next

Listening to ‘thank u, next’, the latest album from the current reigning queen of pop Ariana Grande, it's clear she's redefined the pop album for 2019. Music alone is no longer enough. This is a pop cultural event that works on multiple levels, defining Ariana not only by the music, but by her relatability and her meme-worthiness.

This really is an album for the internet age. Lead single and title track thank u, next has become a meme since its release, while its accompanying video – an ode to Mean Girls and other teen rom-coms – broke records in its first 24 hours on YouTube. The title of closing track break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored seems particularly primed for the internet; it immediately got fans’ attention when the tracklist was released. And while the album’s second single 7 rings received a (mostly) positive reaction, fans have since started a hashtag to boycott the song in an attempt to get break up with you girlfriend, i’m bored to the top of the charts. Such is the power of fans in this digital age.

It all ties in with the relatable pop star, social media allowing artists to interact directly with their fans. That’s certainly the case with Ariana, whose fans have stood by her over the past couple of years through engagement, break-ups, tragedy and every other twist and turn of her life. ‘thank u, next’ addresses all of this, working like a puzzle box for fans to decipher lyrical context. Other references add to the pop cultural fun – “highlight of my life, just like that Fenty Beauty kit,” she sings on make up, in a nod to Rihanna’s beauty company.

On a deeper level, though, this album is clearly catharsis for the singer. Beat for beat it takes us through her emotional relationship history over the last year. It begins with the downbeat romanticism of imagine, perhaps referencing the impossibility of love with ex-boyfriend Mac Miller who passed away from a drug overdose. Through needy, NASA and bloodline she gives reasons why a relationship would break down, from neediness to time apart and not wanting to commit. Introspection comes with fake smile, Ariana at her most open and vulnerable: “I can’t fake another smile…And I won’t say I’m feeling fine / After what I been through.” Later that continues on ghostin in which she tragically admits “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again over him.” By the end, the album is flipped on its head with the empowerment of its final few songs. Not merely satisfied with a kiss off to her past lovers with the title track, she ends the album openly coming for your man.

Initially at least, ‘thank u, next’ seems least satisfying on a purely musical level. Known for her pop bangers, this album lacks a big pop moment in the vein of Break Free, Into You, or no tears left to cry. It also sees her leaning more heavily into hip-hop, filling the void that Rihanna has seemingly left behind, for the time being at least. bloodline is a re-tread of Side To Side. 7 rings is tritely based on ‘The Sound of Music’ song My Favourite Things.

Repeated listens prove fruitful, however. The personal connection provides a compelling overarching narrative and, just as the lyrics are filled with little details, so too the production comprises little sonic nuggets. The yearning, rising whistle tone hooks of the gospel-tinged imagine. The warm synths and space whooshes of NASA. The half-rapped pre-chorus in bloodline. The delicious guitar line in bad idea that’s slowly overtaken by cinematic strings in the bridge; the way, in that same song, the outro pitch bends and distorts the vocals. The breathy, otherworldly harmonies in ghostin. The simple hook and playful tone of thank u, next juxtaposed with its sassy sentiment. The anthemic break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored that certainly lives up to its brazen title. Throughout, deep trap beats and delicate vocals create a sensual, intoxicating mix. 

Even beneath the fun and the memes and the raw, cathartic lyrical content, the songs of ‘thank u, next’ ensure Ariana Grande will remain on the radio, YouTube and streaming services for as long as she's written about online. It seems 2019 has already been won.

4/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* NASA
* Bad idea
* Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored

Listen: ‘thank u, next’ is out now.




Sunday, 10 February 2019

Boy Erased


Director Joel Edgerton tackles a tricky topic in Boy Erased. Based on the real life memoirs of LGBT activist Garrard Conley, it's a film that commendably faces up to the dangers of religious gay conversion camps in America. But it's so wrapped up in its agenda, that its narrative plods and stumbles.

Lucas Hedges plays the lead Jared, a young man wrestling with his sexuality. His father, Russell Crowe is a pastor and deeply religious; his mother, Nicole Kidman, meekly follows her husband.

When Jared admits to his parents that he's had sexual thoughts about men, they send him to a religious gay conversion camp led by the villainous Victor Sykes (Edgerton). Alongside a group of other men and women, they're subjected to humiliation and religious manipulation. They're forced to relive trauma in front of one another, admit to their shame. And they're told to direct their anger towards their parents, believing that we're not born homosexual, it's a behavioural issue. It is deeply harrowing.

That the film is based on real events makes it all the more poignant. These camps still exist across America and it's undoubtedly Edgerton's agenda to highlight their destructive power. In that sense, Boy Erased is a vital film in the fight for equality and acceptance.

But the narrative falters. Largely, that's because the underwritten Jared is a bland cipher through which we simply witness the horrors in the camp for ourselves. We never truly develop an attachment to him as a character. He's vulnerable, but barely do we see him actually struggling with his sexuality or his loneliness. Two flashback scenes lurch to two extremes - a troubling attempted rape and a tender moment of sweet innocence - but it's not enough. He's left to merely wrestle with the morality of his situation, which is somewhat a given.

Instead, the emphasis is less on self-discovery and more about the horrendous experience he's forced to endure by his parents. It's they who have the more interesting narrative arc. Do they deserve his forgiveness? Can they be redeemed? There's an issue with casting here too: Hedges may get the most screen time, but for emotional power it's hard to compete with the star power of Kidman and Crowe. Musicians Flea and Troye Sivan also pop up in the peripheral cast.

The washed out and dreary visuals may suit the downbeat tone of the film, but it's all a bit one-note and falls flat. Where emotional resonance is required, Boy Erased feels too cold and muted to make enough of an impact.

3/5

Watch: Boy Erased is out now.


Friday, 8 February 2019

New Music Friday 08/02/19

MARINA - Handmade Heaven

MARINA - Handmade Heaven

It's been four years since 'FROOT', so it's great to have Marina back with some off-kilter pop. In that time she's dropped the diamonds, learn to deal with her mental health and rediscovered herself. That all comes together in Handmade Heaven, using imagery of nature to suggest insignificance and lack of purpose. Marina's falsetto is unmistakable; here it soars over cinematic production. Dreamy, sad, beautiful. Welcome back.

Add to playlist.



ionnalee - Open Sea


After her project as iamamiwhoami, Sweden's Jonna Lee last year released a new album under the moniker ionnalee. Open Sea is the first track from its follow up, but it remains typical of her style: icy synths, disco beats, and a widescreen sensibility. This track stands out though, for its bubbling production, aquatic lyrical imagery, and a particularly fizzy middle eight. The forthcoming 'Remember The Future' is going to be a treat for the ears.

Add to playlist.



Anna Of The North - Leaning On Myself

Anna of the North - Leaning On Myself

From Sweden to Norway, here's another Scandi returning artist. Leaning On Myself is a more sparse affair when compared to Anna Of The North's 2017 debut 'Lovers', glacial 80s synths swapped for an echoing guitar riff and a slow, shuffling beat. It's more personal too, as the title suggests, with lyrics influenced by a personal breakdown. An anthem for anyone who's feeling alone.

Worth a listen.



Kim Petras - If U Think About Me

Kim Petras - If U Think About Me

Kim Petras has released not one but three new singles today. 1, 2, 3 dayz up features SOPHIE and has the producer's idiosyncratic computerised sound all over it. Homework with lil aaron is pure teen romance. But the highlight is If U Think About Me, a pulsing, whirring, rush of a synth-pop track.

Add to playlist.



Khalid & Disclosure - Talk

Khalid & Disclosure - Talk

Khalid is racking up quite the discography, collaborating with R&B, pop and dance artists alike. This latest track - the first from his forthcoming second album - falls into the latter category, with production from Disclosure that glistens and twinkles over an addictive staccato beat.

Worth a listen.



LYRA - Falling

LYRA - Falling

Singer-songwriter LYRA is set to be one of Ireland's hottest new talents this year. Dramatic production full of lush strings and a thundering beat create a sense of empowerment juxtaposed with lyrics detailing a cheating lover. It's that distinctive voice that really stands out though: intense, haunting, and with a hint of lilting Irish flair.

Worth a listen.


My Dad's Gap Year @ The Park Theatre

My Dad's Gap Year @ The Park Theatre

William is eighteen, gay, and a virgin. His idea of a gap year is a (pretty dull) marketing job at his mum's office. His dad, Dave, is a lazy alcoholic slob, spending his days playing video games and drinking beer. He's in need of a gap year from life. And so, the two men journey to the sun, sand and sex of Thailand to find themselves.

My Dad's Gap Year, from Tom Wright, takes us on a journey too. What starts like an episode from The Inbetweeners travels through comedy and solemnity to a grave end, jarring tonal shifts suggesting a clash of genres between family comedy and drama.

Along that journey, the show touches on numerous important themes. On the one hand, the uptight and repressed William (Alex Britt) struggles with his sexuality and eventually turns to substance abuse as a coping method for both his inner trauma and the trauma of his parents splitting up. On the other, Dave (Adam Lannon) is dealing with splitting up with his wife, a lack of job, a lack of prospects. Both rely on escape to run away from their issues rather than facing them head-on. In predictable fashion, the play is essentially about these two disparate characters reconciling their differences and re-establishing their father-son relationship.

But it's also about opposing views of masculinity. Of a generational gap turned on its head. Of a broken family. Of trans rights and breaking down the image of Thai "ladyboys".

My Dad's Gap Year certainly has its heart in the right place. But for every moment of progression, there's a moment of trite cliché: from characterisation and the setting, to some cringey dialogue.

It remains an entertaining piece of theatre. Britt and Lannon make a great double act and their connection is ultimately heart-warming, while Victoria Gigante gives a poignant performance as Mae. Michelle Collins, while the headline actress as William's mother Cath, is largely superfluous to the narrative.

Still, the play is caught between the precocious seriousness of William and the juvenile banter of Dave. It never quite meets in the middle.

3/5

Watch: My Dad's Gap Year runs at the Park Theatre until 23rd February.

My Dad's Gap Year @ The Park Theatre

My Dad's Gap Year @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Cougar @ The Orange Tree Theatre


Cougar @ The Orange Tree Theatre

The title of this new play at The Orange Tree theatre, from Rose Lewenstein, implies a piece about a relationship with an older woman. Illicit, dangerous, predatory. Cougar is all of these things. It’s intense and erotic. But more so, it’s actually a play about consumption and climate change. Weirdly, that mix works.

It’s the relationship that initially hooks us though. This is two people – the twentysomething John (Mike Noble) and the older Leila (Charlotte Randle) – with animalistic passions caged up in luxury hotel rooms. Rosanna Vize’s design is a Perspex box and we are the voyeurs. Lewenstein has structured the play as a series of extremely short scenes, some just a matter of seconds, that don’t play out chronologically. It gives Cougar a timeless quality that simultaneously suggests their passion for one another and their entrapment in this hotel room relationship.

There are hints and snapshots of violence, fantasy and role-play. Leila wishes to be bought; John finds her irresistible. There’s a reversal in perceived (outdated) gender roles: Leila, financially secure, holds all the power; John is emasculated, her naive prey. They are such polar opposites that you know it won’t work out between them. Yet while John falls for her, Leila's own intentions remain teasingly ambiguous.

Lewenstein’s intentions, though, are more acute. This isn’t just a play about two humans consuming each other in a disturbing and provocative affair. It’s about the hypocrisy of the modern world, the way we consume the planet and its resources. Leila works in climate change, making speeches to corporations in hotel conference rooms. She speaks of NGOs and economics and saving the planet. Yet, by her own admission, she earns a “disgusting” amount of money. Over the course of the play, both she and John consume food like beasts, drink alcohol like water, and change into identical clothes fresh from cellophane wrappers. John tries to make his own small gestures – giving money to a beggar for instance – but he is depressingly representative of the youth led astray by an older generation.

Cougar is expertly paced, its quick scenes slowly drawing us into the nuances of the script. Snappy dialogue reflects the age difference of the characters, and both Noble and Randle deftly switch between contrasting emotions in two bold performances.

By the play’s conclusion, the couple’s carbon footprint is laid bare in their hotel room, littered with the detritus of their affair, their passion burnt out. It’s an apocalyptic end to the play, the world, and their relationship.

4/5

Watch: Cougar runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 2nd March.

Cougar @ The Orange Tree Theatre
Photo: The Other Richard

Saturday, 2 February 2019

New Music Friday 01/02/19

Billie Eilish - bury a friend

Billie Eilish - bury a friend

This menacing, minimalist new single from Billie Eilish feels like everything we could want from a popstar in 2019. The production has a distinct Kanye West vibe to it, while the lyrics - from the perspective of a monster under the bed, perhaps inspired by an episode of sleep paralysis - take us down a dark twisted road that certainly fits the apocalyptic sign of the times. Paired with the video though and the song takes on a whole new level of horror, heightening the quiet terrifying drama of the song.

Add to playlist.



Astrid S - Someone New

Astrid S - Someone New

This Charli XCX penned track, also co-written with Noonie Bao, is a bubbling pop joy. The hook is a simple one, but the unexpected syncopations of the staccato beat keep you on your toes throughout three minutes of concise songwriting. Probably the Norwegian singer's best song.

Add to playlist.



ALMA - When I Die

ALMA - When I Die

The Finnish singer's got death on her mind in this new track taken from her forthcoming album 'Have You Seen Her'. Goth pop, clubby vibes and sinuous guitar lines squelch together in this ode to a spectacular end to life, drinks in hand, full of excess, and everybody motherfucking dancing.

Worth a listen.



LUCIA - Blueheart

LUCIA - Blueheart

This new single from the Glaswegian rock band is a rowdy mix of guitars and soaring vocals, but there's a distinct pop sensibility too. Produced by Jim Abbiss and mixed by Charlie Holmes and Mark "Spike" Spent (who between them have worked with acts as varied as Arctic Monkeys, Adele, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga), it's melody-driven, features a sing-along chorus and at less than three minutes doesn't outstay its welcome. Lucia Fairfull's clear vocal is layered with harmony in a track that treads a line between dreamy and grunge.

Worth a listen.



The Chemical Brothers - Got To Keep On

The Chemical Brothers - Got To Keep On

The dance duo will be releasing their ninth (!) album 'No Geography' in April, from which Got To Keep On is taken. The infectious bass is layered with sumptuous disco vocals, classic house vibes and spacey effects, all punctuated by light, clipped percussion. This is an instant festival classic.

Add to playlist.



Empire of the Sun - Chrysalis

Empire of the Sun - Chrysalis

Empire of the Sun have never quite outshined their debut album 'Walking On A Dream', which went on to win Album Of The Year at the ARIA Awards. It's now being re-released with this previously unheard track included. And let's be honest, Chrysalis should've remained that way. The warm synth pads and funk guitars are now typical of the band, but the song is one-note and dull. One that should've stayed in the studio.

Don't bother.



Busted - All My Friends

Busted - All My Friends

The three-piece's previous album 'Night Driver' was an under-appreciated 80s thrill. For new album 'Half Way There', then, they've gone back to their roots with a pop-rock sound taken straight from the year 2000. All My Friends is a dry acoustic ballad about growing up - it's meant to show maturity, but instead it's three relatively young guys sounding like country crooners on Radio 2.

Don't bother.



Ally Brooke feat. Tyga - Low Key

Ally Brooke feat. Tyga - Low Key

Yet another release from an ex-Fifth Harmony member, following squarely in Camila Cabello's footsteps with a Latino-infused mid-tempo "jam" and a hook that sounds like she's summoning a Norse God. You low key should not have bothered.

Don't bother.



Thursday, 24 January 2019

Company @ The Gielgud Theatre


Company @ The Gielgud Theatre

The gender flip in this revival of Sondheim’s Company, produced by the National Theatre, has received plenty of attention. Rather than telling the tale of perennial bachelor Bobbie, actress Rosalie Craig turns the same character into a likeable single gal whose friends relentlessly try to set her up. There are other switches too, not least of all the introduction of a gay couple, plus a brand new song from Sondheim to allow the lead role a further moment in the spotlight. It gives this 1970 musical an updated twist, to resonate even more with a modern audience.

Equally, though, it sort of makes no difference. The changes to character and script are so seamless that you’d never know the musical wasn’t written this way. It is, after all, not a show defined by gender. Its themes are universal – a single thirtysomething finding love in New York City, discovering their innate desire for human connection. Man, woman, gay, straight…none of these things really matter, such is the malleability of Sondheim’s work to remain relevant to any and all audiences.

The show is, abstractly, a dissection of relationships. Though it takes place on Bobbie’s 35th birthday (a repeated moment that’s as much about her own age anxiety as it is a structural device), each scene explores the lives of her partnered friends: the overly competitive couple; the couple who need to loosen up; the couple panicking about marriage; the couple more content in divorce. Through Sondheim’s music and George Furth’s book, it’s an incredibly perceptive show that refracts and shifts like a prism. Humans are difficult and oxymoronic, our relationships good and bad. There’s no easy truth, no fairytale ending. All we’re after is…some company.

And who said Sondheim doesn’t write tunes? Company is full of them! There are long and searching melodies, jittery and nervous melodies, incessant hooks that niggle away in our minds as much as Bobbie’s. There’s the cutesy “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”, now turned into a barbershop trio, the intricately choreographed “Side by Side”, and of course the soaring “Being Alive” – Craig closing the show in absolutely stunning fashion. The performances throughout are exquisitely sung, each crescendo and lush harmony sending tingles up the spine. And even though the characterisation is sometimes cartoonish, the quirks and emotions of each character are imminently relatable.

Bunny Christie’s sleek design frames each scene literally with moveable sets, each bordered in neon themed colours. They’re like comic book panels, vignettes, windows into the lives of these people. It’s a minimalist design that nonetheless parallels the nuances of the show, morphing from intimate bedrooms to the hustle and bustle of the big city and the hundreds of potential connections to be made. This is a polished production that feels effortless, the star cast – from Craig, to Patti Lupone and Mel Giedroyc  - all living up to their billing. Special mention to Jonathan Bailey though whose comedic performance as Jamie is scatty and adorable.

What’s most apparent, though, is Sondheim’s ability to pick apart the surface of each character and reveal the personal neuroses of each. It turns these characters into real people, a reflection not only of messy humanity but of love itself. Company is sad and frightening and hilarious and reminds us of the sheer joy of being alive.

5/5

Watch: Company runs at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th March.

Company @ The Gielgud Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre


Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre

This is a truly global proposition. A very American musical – both in subject and in writing team – in a Japanese co-production receiving it’s UK premiere in London. It’s themes though are universal: a young girl on a journey of self-discovery.

What’s immediately apparent is Morgan Large’s set design. You’ve never seen the Charing Cross Theatre like this before, transformed into a traverse stage complete with revolving floor. There are plenty of details in the side panels too, but this type of staging isn’t necessarily well-suited to the space – the audience are seated too far from the stage to appreciate the finer intricacies of the set and the performances, impressive though they are.

The score is from composer Jeanine Tesori, most famous for Caroline, or Change (currently showing at the Playhouse Theatre) and Fun Home (which recently ran at the Young Vic). Violet, then, is nothing if not timely. Here, Tesori’s music takes on a multitude of American styles, from country ballads and rock ‘n’ roll, to blues harmony and gospel choirs. There are some gorgeous choral harmonies in what is overall an uplifting chamber score. Early on, though, there’s an over-reliance on polyphony, multiple characters singing their stories over one another, that doesn’t exactly lend itself to a clear exposition.

It’s difficult, therefore, to warm immediately to the story. The titular Violet boards a bus to journey across the deep south of America. Her goal is to meet an evangelist who can miraculously cure the facial scarring she endured as a child. Along the journey she meets two soldiers – one black, one white – forming a half-baked love triangle. There are hints of the civil rights movement and themes of religion and race, but this is ultimately a coming-of-age tale of a young girl learning to accept her scars, both physical and psychological. The denouement, though, feels saccharine and the final message - of not judging by appearances - seems to awkwardly equate facial disfigurement and race, with two people scarred by society finding companionship together.

Violet, though, is a compelling character. Brash and headstrong, yet utterly naïve, she feels like an authentic country girl finding her place in the wider world. Hammarlund (who incidentally just performed in Fun Home) is a wonderful leading lady, vocally strong and delivering a clearly defined and characterful performance. Elsewhere the cast are talented – there are great vocals from Angelica Allen, Jay Marsh and Simbi Akande especially, while Kenneth Avery Clark brings plenty of energy as the preacher – but the peripheral characters feel underwritten and incidental. This is, ultimately, Violet’s story.

Despite a bold and polished production, the plot doesn’t quite have the drive or clarity to be dramatically engaging and stalls with each musical number. With Hammarlund centre stage, though, Violet is warm, endearing and very well sung.

3/5

Watch: Violet runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6th April.


Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander