Pros: Excellent musicianship and a good range of song styles
Cons: Lack of memorable tunes and a confusing storyline
Calling all producers! Please stop pasting microphones to your singers’ foreheads! If you can’t hide them under their hair (although, why?) then the jawline is a far better option. Your audience is connecting to a singer’s eyes, and they don’t want to be distracted by a bundle of wiring in the middle of their face.
Sorry, just had to get that pet peeve off my chest. The latest culprit of clumsy microphone concealment is Violet, set in the southern states of America in the mid 1960s. It’s a sort of musical road-trip undertaken by Violet (Kaisa Hammarlund), a young woman who was facially disfigured by a childhood accident. Violet yearns for the acceptance and love she believes will be hers if she can miraculously heal the scar that prevents people from looking at her without horror.
Violet embarks on a Greyhound Bus pilgrimage from Carolina to Oklahoma, where she hopes a television evangelist (Kenneth Avery Clark) will be able to take away her hideous blemish and its attendant emotional pain.
Along the way, Violet meets soldiers Monty (Matthew Harvey) and Flick (Jay Marsh) and disarms them with her poker prowess, which is sweet but rather undermines the premise. Is she beautiful despite her scar? Has her tortured self-confidence somehow built her into an irresistible force?
In any case, both of Violet’s hunks quickly fall for her, and her journey from freak to fought-over isn’t rendered any more comprehensible by the decision not actually to give Hammarlund a physical scar. Such a boldly counter-intuitive choice requires more sophisticated theatricality than this wholesome but simplistic show has to offer. It’s a really hard sell to put on a show about disfigurement without showing disfigurement. Things aren’t made any clearer when Violet’s pilgrimage ends in rejection by the priest, but for a while she seems to believe she’s been cured.
Along the way, Violet is not without its charms. There are some touching scenes between Violet (played as a youngster in this performance by Amy Mepham) and her guilt-laden Pa (Keiron Crook). The musicianship and singing throughout are top quality, and the score makes the most of the show’s setting to treat us to characterful doses of country banjo and bluesy slide guitar, plus some fun gospel choir moments.
Sadly, along with its confusing treatment of its central subject, Violet also suffers from a lack of memorable tunes. This is a common failing of many modern musicals, alas. It doesn’t matter how engaging your story is, or how competent the arrangements, if you can’t muster a rousing melody in service of the narrative. I think The Grinning Man was the last musical whose tunes actually made an impact. And they were better at hiding their microphones, too.
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Book/Lyrics: Brian Crowley
Director: Shuntaro Fujita
Producers: Charing Cross Theatre Productions and Umeda Arts Theater Co Ltd (Japan)
Playing until: 6 April
Box office: 08444 930650