Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed – 21st January 2019
“enjoyable at times but requires more attentive storytelling”
A competent and confident cast just about save this somewhat tepid yet redemptive road-trip musical. Jeanine Tesori’s Southern States inspired score, expertly mixing country, blues rock ‘n’ roll and gospel influences, is ultimately let down by a middling script and unfocused lyrics.
Violet (Kaisa Hammarlund) sets out on a Greyhound bus from backwoods Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to Tulsa, hoping to get her facial scar ‘healed’ by a well-known tele-preacher (Kenneth Avery-Clark). An accident with a loose axe head in childhood left Violet both physically and emotionally scarred, meaning relationships formed along the way with soldiers Monty (Matthew Harvey) and Flick (Jay Marsh) are fraught and conflicted. We can all guess where the story goes from here.
Sadly, it is Violet’s story that brings this production down. Despite being just over twenty years old, the gender politics of this musical feel dated and discomforting. Beauty is found, of course, within – but also with a little help from a heterosexual male telling you you’re beautiful. Violet’s experiences of rejection are compared with Flick’s as a racially segregated black male. Furthermore, we never quite get a chance to learn why we should care about Violet’s story. We haven’t learnt anything new about impossible standards of beauty, nor about mid-sixties American culture. Why revive this now?
The musical numbers are varied and enjoyable, but forgettable. “Raise Me Up”, a heartfelt gospel tune belted out by Lula (Simbi Akande), stands out, and yet even this is immediately reduced to a gag about Clark’s preacher’s incorrigibly fake routine. Shuntaro Fujita’s direction is often awkward, with actors left at times to simply stand and sing at each other. Fujita does manage to blend Violet’s childhood memories into the present-day action well. These moments, in fact, prove some of the most effective parts of the production, giving Violet’s beleaguered character some crucial context.
Despite reuniting some of the artistic talent behind last year’s outstanding ‘Fun Home’, this musical lacks the emotional turbulence, coherence and charm of that production. ‘Violet’ is certainly enjoyable at times but requires more attentive storytelling and better lyrics if it wishes to set its sights on the West End.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Scott Rylander
Charing Cross Theatre until 6th April
Previously reviewed at this venue: