There’s much to be said in Violet about how people can be sucked into trying to achieve something unattainable in an effort to make a better life for themselves. The central title character (Kaisa Hammarlund) sustained a childhood facial disfigurement as a result of an accident. In this production, members of the audience may initially be confused as to the extent of the injury, given that no scar can be visibly seen. No matter: the show relies on the dialogue and its actors to portray an injury that at various points in the show causes reactions from other characters, ranging from immediate pity to barely contained laughter.
Set in the Bible Belt in 1964 (please don’t be put off by the religious content), the show also explores the results of civil rights activism, as well as the progress that still had to be made (and, to be brutally honest, still does). A few years after Rosa Parks (1913-2005) refused to give way to a white passenger on a bus, Flick (an engaging Jay Marsh) takes a seat on a Greyhound bus without problems, though some prejudice still remains. The occasional remark produces some audible reactions of shock from a twenty-first century London audience, and rightly so.
The Charing Cross Theatre auditorium having been reconfigured to accommodate an in-the-round production, extensive use is made of a revolve. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help noticing my section of the stalls seemed overall to have a better view than our fellow audience members sat opposite: the grass is not, alas, always greener on the other side. Anyway, a Preacher (Kenneth Avery-Clark) struts his stuff and asking (or, rather, demanding) his followers to take a leap of faith. Violet is one such follower, having convinced herself that she will be cured of her disfigurement by receiving prayer from this television evangelist. But then again, a disfigurement is not a disease, and a religion that emphasises serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed can’t help someone who wants to look more attractive for material gain.
A nine-strong band, led by Dan Jackson, tackles the lush and varied score (Jeanine Tesori) with precision and perfection. Musical numbers range from the rousing ‘Raise Me Up’ (the ensemble suitably attired in gospel choir robes) to the soaring final tune, ‘Bring Me To Light’, while the cast’s voices harmonise quite gloriously in ‘On My Way’. Yes, ‘me’ and ‘my’ features a fair bit in the song titles, in what is essentially a very personal story.
One or two fellow theatregoers told me about what they perceived to be a lack of character development in anyone other than Violet. I must respectfully disagree. While the show has its stereotypes, such as in Janet Mooney’s Old Lady and Hotel Hooker (separate characters, I hasten to add), there is enough detail about the Preacher’s ‘real’ beliefs, for instance, especially in an ‘off-stage’ scene with Violet. The two soldiers who share most of Violet’s bus journey, Monty (Matthew Harvey) and Flick, display very different personality traits. Both appear somewhat wiser by the end. And in any case, in a show called Violet with a central character called Violet, why on earth would the show be about anyone else?
I do wonder, though, why some characters remained seated on stage during certain scenes, when no purpose was served by them being there – and from my vantage point, I couldn’t help but glance across occasionally at them to ascertain if they were actually doing anything. As for Kaisa Hammarlund’s Violet, hers is an impressive and nuanced performance. There’s a shrinking Violet somewhere, but not here. A reflective and bittersweet production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
1964. Somewhere between North Carolina and Oklahoma, we find Violet, a young woman who was facially disfigured as a child. She hopes her life savings will bring her a miracle halfway across the country. Reflecting on her childhood, and shaped by the reactions of the people she encounters, Violet embarks on a life-changing personal journey.
Creative team: Director Shuntaro Fujita, Choreographer Cressida Carré, Set Design Morgan Large, Costume Jonathan Lipman, Lighting Howard Hudson, Sound Andrew Johnson, Music Director Dan Jackson, Associate Music Director Chris Ma, Production Supervisor Thom Southerland
Casting: Kaisa Hammarlund as Violet, Matthew Harvey as Monty, Jay Marsh as Flick, Simbi Akande, Angelica Allen, Kenneth Avery-Clark, Keiron Crook, James Gant, Danny Michaels, Janet Mooney, with Amy Mepham, Rebecca Nardin and Madeleine Sellman as Young Violet
Producers: Steven M Levy and Vaughan Williams for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited, in a co-production with Umeda Arts Theatre Co Ltd, Osaka, Japan.
14th January – 6th April 2019
Running time: approx 100mins with no interval