Violet is a poignant story of self-acceptance, pain and reflection, pertinent to modern sensibilities. The main themes of acceptance and superficial judgement vs interior quality were obvious from the raising of the curtain, with a cleverly-staged image of the characters, their faces all covered by fashion magazines, all except one, who held a small black prayer book over hers. This, inevitably, was our lead, Violet (Jasmine Thine), whose journey revealed moments of poignant rejection and discrimination, played out in an inventive variety of ways. Some moments crept through conversation, without the actors blinking, until the discriminatory sentiment had infected the entire scene. Others were bluntly staged as a slap in the face of the audience: a number’s crescendo of self-empowerment is cut short by an insulting remark; a moment of true connection and happiness is brutally curtailed by a slip of the tongue.
One of the most successful stylistic decisions was to have the past interweaved with the narrative of the present: we see young Violet (Louisa Stuart-Smith) smiling with delight before the accident, and brimming with despair in the immediate aftermath. You saw simultaneously the reasons for Violet’s present pain, as well as the effects of her father (Alex Evans)’s distancing himself from her. The emotional development of the present day was mirrored by the father and daughter’s attempts to reconcile themselves to the accident and each other, providing a second narrative alongside the other that revealed it isn’t a scar that makes the characters feel ugly.
Violet portrays themes of ableism, racism, but also mental trauma, with the various leads all being delicately revealed, layer by layer, to have their own complex psychological trauma to battle. All of this was interwoven with a slowly unfolding love story that mixed true affection with a distortionary desire for acceptance. This made for unsettling viewing at times, especially when reminded, through interlaced dual vocals, that Violet’s desire to be loved may free her from one box only to place her into another of objectified womanhood.
While the messages in Violet were poignantly addressed, its musical aspect fell slightly flat. The vocalists seemed to be suffering from opening night nerves and moments of triumphant expression were often realised with uncertain delivery and tonality. This wasn’t helped by the often quite static arrangement of the musical numbers. Where in the spoken scenes direction had seen dynamic movements and layered images, the musical scenes saw characters sat stock still, singing almost to themselves.
There were, of course, exceptions, with Brandon Lino giving powerful vocal performances, adding to a nuanced portrayal of the (seemingly) care-free GI, Monty. Similarly, Thomas Cox’s preacher and his gospel ensemble provided a moment of musical elation, tinged with sadness over his brutal egotism. The orchestra too, was tight and well arranged, with thoughtful use of diverse instruments providing the perfect backdrop for the journey through America’s musical landscape: on arrival in Memphis, country fiddles were out and the walking bass in for the home of the delta blues. It was only a shame that the vocals seemed to be battling this invigorating score, rather than harmoniously layering onto it.
Violet portrays an arresting image of an ‘act ugly, do ugly, be ugly’ world, where everyone judges everyone else, which, despite ending on a high note, leaves you wondering if this world needs the miracle Violet seeks. It is a thought-provoking and well-staged piece of theatre, yet it can’t shake the feeling that as a play it may have been the triumph that the musical falls short of.