What is Violet? Is it a play? Is it a musical? Is it an opera? Is it a song cycle? The poster doesn’t give much away. Violet is, at various times it seems, all of these things.
Having known nothing of this piece, I deliberately kept away from any related material, and sat down in the theatre in that delicious state of anticipation, waiting for something new, and hopefully wonderful. I was not disappointed.
The producers seem to have overcome most of the traps that befall mounting ambitious theatre on a small budget, within an intimate venue. There are no holes. The design (Simon Greer) is useful and creative. The lighting (Ross Graham) and playful choreography (Amy Campbell) was fluid and focused. The casting seems right on. The tight band, under the musical direction of Martine Wengrow, successfully brought many musical styles to the table. But congratulations must go to the producers for ensuring that the sound was top draw, provided by Kelvin Gedye, and his super team at System Sound.
The play follows the journey of a young woman, Violet (Sam Dodemaide). The central piece of the set being a window onto a lonely highway constantly reminding us that we are on a journey. In fact, it’s our journey, through Violet’s eyes.
Violet was the victim of a tragic accident, as a young child, when an axe that her father was using, horribly disfigured her face. In very moving and effective flash-backs, the young Violet (Luisa Scrofani), and her father (Damien Bermingham) sensitively lay the bedrock for the drama. Violet, now as a lonely, young adult, travels by bus to visit a television evangelist who dupes her into thinking that the physical scars can be healed by his connection to Jesus.
The confidence exuded by this talented ensemble is a tribute to them.
Barely skipping a beat, they bring the inventive score (Jeanine Tesori) and the lyrics and book (Brian Crawley), based on the book The Ugliest Pilgrim penned by Doris Betts, to life steering us through a world of bigotry, grief and uncertainty. Violet meets Monty (Steve Danielsen) and Flick (Barry Conrad) on the bus journey and the three form the nucleus of this story. Each matches the others in focus and ability. It was impressive to watch such a young trio hold the stage so articulately.
Casting an X-Factor finalist could send anyone running to the foyer bar. Barry Conrad, who came to national prominence on X-Factor, adds music theatre to his many accomplishments. He exudes a star quality and infused his character, Flick, with intelligence, stillness and warmth. Congratulations.
My only misgiving about this production, is that it has no interval. At a running time of 105 minutes, adding one seemed advisable.
Lastly, the success of this production must sit squarely at the feet of its director, Mitchel Butel. An accomplished actor, surely we are watching the early directorial work of someone who will influence theatre for decades to come?
Butel has shown a remarkable insight into the meaning of this play and directed the cast with confidence and economy; no mean feat given that a few of his cast are making their professional debut in theatre. He illustrates that he can navigate a cast through drama and comedy with ease. The various tableaux were very effective, shaping the stage, given that the production does not lean heavily on choreography, the action moving constantly either through dialogue or physical action.
Violet is a gem.