Shuntaro Fujita’s production features a strong cast, but the story feels non-existent.
When you look at yourself in the mirror – do you truly see yourself or do you simply see a version of yourself that you don’t like? This is something that is very much at the centre of this thought-provoking but slight musical that boasts a great cast but lacks strength in its plot to make it utterly convincing.
The musical follows Violet who has been left permanently scarred following a childhood accident and has grown up insecure and feeling ‘ugly’ because of it. In order to change her appearance she goes on a journey to Tulsa to seek the help of a preacher who she believes can change her appearance.
Based on the story ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim’ by Doris Betts, the musical features music from Jenine Tesori (best known for Fun Home) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley that genuinely seems to want us to re-evaluate how we see ourselves. Unfortunately, the flaws in Brian Crawley’s book are exposed in this nicely presented production directed by Shuntaro Fujita.
The main problem with the book and plot is that there is very little character development – not helped by the lack of events to drive the story forward to a satisfactory conclusion. Throughout, it feels as though you are constantly questioning the motives and purpose of the characters Violet meets along the way – particularly soldiers Monty and Flick who are both attracted to her despite her plainness. This is perhaps not helped by the number of people in the ensemble who switch between a number of characters for no real purpose and given very little to do.
However, there are still some positives to this particular production of this quirky musical. It can’t be denied that Shuntaro Fujita’s production has plenty of sincerity to it that makes you really feel for Violet and Flick’s situation – the outsiders for being “different” in their own ways . There is a rawness to it that utterly convinces – particularly during ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’, while Violet singing ‘All to Pieces’ really brings her desire to change her appearance home.
Throughout this production, it is emphasised why this is a musical that is relevant to audiences today – in a era obsessed with selfies, instagram and with perfection, Fujita places the idea that by focusing on how we see ourselves we forget that how we are seen by others is equally important. It is constantly thought-provoking.
By staging it in the round, Morgan Large’s rustic and warm set design allows the audience to feel as close to Violet’s journey as possible, while Howard Hudson’s effective lighting transports us between the past and present as Violet reflects on her life up to this point. It is a stylish and unique way to present this musical – but captures the intimacy of it perfectly.
But it is the cast who really make the production fly and gives some life to the straight forward plot. In particular, Kaisa Hammarlund as the insecure Violet offers a raw but spirited performance, blossoming as the character develops in confidence. Vocally, her renditions of ‘Lay Down Your Head’ and ‘All to Pieces’ are two particular highlights. Elsewhere, Jay Marsh as Flick is wonderfully sincere throughout, with Matthew Harvey’s arrogant and swaggering Monty making a great contrast.
Overall, Violet has plenty of sincerity and perceptive lyrics to make it endearing to watch, but the book ultimately lets it down and doesn’t allow the characters to quite shine as brightly as they could. Definite potential here – but in need of some work.
By Emma Clarendon
Violet continues to play at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 6th April. To book tickets click here: https://lovelondonloveculture.tixuk.com/london-theatre/musicals/violet