Violet – Charing Cross Theatre
A tale of two musicals. One is playing in a tiny theatre that shakes when a train goes through neighbouring Charing Cross Station. The other is on the immense stage of the London Coliseum. The Charing Cross Theatre, aptly named because sometimes you feel as though you are actually on the train, has Violet, a terrific small-scale musical with music by Jeanine Tesoro who is rapidly becoming my favourite theatre composer. Her Caroline or Change, currently running at the Playhouse, is a paradigm of theatre music, allowing her lyrics and book to dictate style and content. Each song is different and reflects the character singing it and the mood or dictate of the moment. That was true for her Tony-winning score for Fun Home as well as this latest offering, Violet.
It is 1964. A young girl with a scarred face boards a Greyhound bus in the small town of Spruce Pines in North Carolina to make the pilgrimage to Memphis, Tennessee to find a TV preacher she believes can take away her scar. Violet is about her journey, the people she meets along the way, and what happens when she arrives. It is utterly beguiling, deceptively simple, and filled with some glorious music performed by some very fine singers. Chief among them is Kaisa Hammerlund in the title role, whose soaring voice easily handles Tesori’s often tricky rhythms and the Southern lilt of Violet’s North Carolina accent. The director is Shuntaro Fujita of the award-winning Tokyo Uneda Arts Theatre, not the most obvious choice for a profoundly American story of rural ignorance and religious fervour, but he succeeds in making us care about Violet and the flotsam and jetsam of her fellow Greyhound bus passengers in a constantly moving – in both senses of the word – production that makes the best possible use of the small playing space.
Notre Dame de Paris- London Coliseum
And forget the show I mentioned that’s playing at the London Coliseum. It’s Notre Dame de Paris and it’s enormous – dancers, dozens of them, over-amplified singers, all sounding like a French pop recording circa 1960, and all looking the same, whether they are prince, beggar or hunchback. It’s not terrible, just nothing worth noting. I only mentioned it because I saw these two shows on subsequent nights and the contrast was arresting.
Rosenbaum’s Rescue – Park Theatre
Every Jewish child (and probably every non-Jewish child also) grows up with a set of myths so ingrained that we never actually examine them for veracity. One is the story of how, in 1940, the Danish King, when the Jews of his country were forced by the Nazis to wear a yellow star, donned one himself and his citizens did likewise, thus making ‘their’ Jews indistinguishable and thereby unpersecutable (is there such a word?). It was a defiant gesture and one that Jews such as my parents would ever after cherish as their one good war story and for which they held the Danes and Denmark in high regard forever. It’s one of those great folktales that I believed absolutely until I saw Rosenbaum’s Rescue.
If the playwright, A. Bodin Saphir, is to be believed, and he’s taken a lot of trouble to get the history right, it never happened, because, from 1940 when the Germans invaded until 1943, the Germans left the running of Denmark to the Danish authorities and never imposed the yellow star rule as they did in other territories they invaded. But in 1943 something did happen and it is this which is the subject of Rosenbaum’s Rescue. The Germans took over the administration of the country and introduced the death penalty and the other persecutions they had imposed elsewhere. To avoid certain death, Danish Jews had to leave the country.
There is now some disagreement among historians as to whether the flight to Sweden of the Danish Jews was an escape or a rescue, whether the Danish citizens spirited their Jews away or assisted the Germans to round them up. What is known is that all those who could do so escaped in small boats to Sweden, a neutral country where they would be safe. To get there they had to be rowed across the Oresund in dead of night by their fellow citizens. It is rightly a point of pride among Danes that so many performed this dangerous feat for no personal gain but because it was the right thing to do.
Rosenbaum’s Rescue sets this famous act of generousity within a single present-day Jewish family in Denmark in which two childhood friends are on opposite sides of the argument, each having a different concept of what actually happened. David Bamber plays the irascible Abraham, keeper of the family memories, still an observant Jew, with subtlety, and Neil McCaul is slightly less convincing as the totally assimilated Danish Jew, Lars. The play still seems somewhat incomplete and other family matters are introduced which, though intended to fill out the audience’s understanding of the conflict, tend to dissipate the drama rather than enhance it. But it’s a fascinating new story to add to our knowledge of the Second World War, one that is unfamiliar to most of us.
Leave to Remain – Lyric Hammersmith
What is most attractive about this new musical about a couple of nice young men who fall in love and decided to marry is not the play by Matt Jones and Kele Okerkeke which is perfectly serviceable, no, it’s the style of movement in which the story is told. Directed and choreographed by Robby Graham, to some rather good music which sounds West African, the story of how families are affected by having their children opt for a traditional marriage in every aspect but one is told with synchronised movement, not dance, which is very effective. It’s a technique I’d like to see more.
The authors seem very sure that gay marriage is different from straight marriage and, although I’m not an expert, I’ve seen enough family fights over the choices made by couples about their weddings to doubt that somewhat. It is interesting that, although this will be an interracial marriage, little is made of any race issues. Sure, Alex’s white American parents try too hard to be African ‘cool’ and Obi’s religious Caribbean parents are horrified by the prospect of their son living with another man, but all six accept that Obi is black and Alex white and the issue is never discussed.
The abrupt decision to marry has come because Alex’s visa is about to run out and he wants to stay in the UK with Obi, hence Leave to Remain. The rest is familiar territory – family rows, the wedding is off, the wedding is on, someone goes missing, someone else is heartbroken – you know, just the regular stuff of wedding madness. I can’t imagine why the authors think it’s any different whether you’re gay or straight.
Approaching Empty – Kiln Theatre
I wanted to like this play about a Pakistani family running a rundown minicab company and wanting to better themselves. It’s a second-generation story, familiar to all of us second-generation immigrants. This one is Pakistani, could be Italian or Irish or Iranian, where the parents come to England, work hard to give their children an education and, if it works out, to leave them a business.
It doesn’t always work out. In Approaching Empty you know right from the start that this is going to be one of those that doesn’t work out. This is one of those ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ plays where the protagonists nearly make it. They nearly buy the business from the rich guy, they nearly get a return on their life savings, they nearly land on their feet, but you know they won’t. And despite some good performances from an ensemble cast, especially from Rina Fatania, the sole female cab driver, you can’t rescue a play that’s full of unvarnished losers.
Cost of Living – Hampstead Theatre
Once again director Ed Hall has chosen a play by an American playwright (in this case a Polish-American playwright) whom we might otherwise never have had the opportunity to meet. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living feels like two plays bolted onto one another, albeit sharing themes of disability, loneliness, and caring, both in the emotional and physical sense. Only at the end, rather clumsily, does the playwright knit them together.
In one, a young homeless woman, currently living in her car, gets a job taking care of a young man who has, I think, motor neurone disease. In any case, he is completely paralysed, except for his head and right hand which he uses to shoot his wheelchair around the stage at great speed. And his head, which he uses to demonstrate that the disease of the body does not affect the mind. Their relationship develops from her awkward job interview to a mutual acceptance of the comfort each can draw from the other.
In the other, a woman who has been in an accident which has left her a double amputee needs the help her feckless ex-husband can give her and is furious about having to accept it. There are some tender and moving scenes in both stories, and the acting from all four characters is exemplary, sometimes too much as both women use correct New Jersey screeches which can be wearing on the nerves after a while. The New Jersey accent is particularly harsh and both Emily Barber as the paid carer and Katy Sullivan as the accident victim nail it with often headache producing accuracy.
But the real glory of this production is that Adrian Lester is back on stage. He’s Eddie, the loving, hopeless ex-husband who personifies the unselfishness and toughness needed to take care of someone who can’t take care of themselves. Without even trying, he dominates the action, from an early monologue in which we learn his weaknesses along with his strengths to the end where his loneliness extends friendship to the damaged young woman, again living in her car, he takes us along the prickly path to caring.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.