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 na├»ve, 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.


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

Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander