Caroline, or Change currently transferred to the Playhouse, a few feet away her 1997 show (with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley) gets its UK debut at the Charing Cross Theatre. Another link to the composer’s more recent work is Fun Home’s leading lady Kaisa Hammarlund, looking significantly less like Sue Perkins as she takes the title role in Violet. Set in the Southern US states in 1964, Violet is a woman who was hit in the face with an axe by her father when she was 13 (probably by accident, although she doesn’t seem entirely convinced.) The resulting scar makes people recoil at the sight of her, and as the play opens she’s leaving her small North Carolina town and getting on a Greyhound bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to see a televangelist and faith healer she hopes can restore her looks.
On the bus she meets two soldiers about to be sent to Vietnam, befriending them by playing poker with them, and as they get to know each other better the two men start to compete for her affections.
As the first black person she’s ever got to know, Flick (Jay Marsh) is fascinating to Violet as someone who knows what it’s like to be judged by his face alone, and the two do build a romantic connection, but Flick isn’t the best at reading Violet’s signals and his friend Monty (Matthew Harvey) is more forward. Shuntaro Fujita’s production doesn’t actually give Hammarlund a scar, possibly as a nod to the fact that her own perception of her looks is holding her back more than the reality (although everyone who sees her yells “OH MY GOD YOUR FACE!” at her so it can’t be great, and maybe it’s just that prosthetic makeup’s quite expensive.)
It’s hard to fault a cast full of very strong performances, with everybody from Hammarlund to the supporting cast displaying powerful voices. And the songs themselves are enjoyable enough, but without many real standouts. But something about Violet is strangely lifeless, a story of travelling across states played out on a revolve somehow feeling like there’s not much movement to it. The theatre has been reconfigured into a traverse – a successful redesign and Morgan Large has delivered a set that brings Violet’s scrapbook of scripture, movie star photos and flowers to life – but Fujita does seem to favour blocking to one side of the stage, and I was on the opposite side so that probably didn’t help me feel a connection to the story.
But the story itself, despite the literal onward movement, doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere. Violet’s disfigurement is the only reason we’re given to like her, her supposed lack of confidence not actually apparent in her actions (and she’s one of those musical theatre characters who leaves her home town cheerfully telling the people there how backwards and stupid they are, so it’s probably no mystery why she’s not more beloved.) The show employs frequent flashbacks to a younger Violet (Rebecca Nardin, alternating with Amy Mepham and Madeleine Sellman) with her father (Keiron Crook) that rarely contribute much to the story, and there’s not much mystery to what will happen to Violet when she shows the preacher her axe-wound. It’s a pleasant enough evening, but one that always feels on the verge of properly getting started without ever picking up that momentum.
Violet by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, based on The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, is booking until the 6th of April at the Charing Cross Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander.