Someone in the audience next to me at Poor Michelle’s Violet describes the principal character, Bertie, played by writer-performer Bebe Sanders, as ‘the most millennial millennial.’ Though I hate that buzzword, it doesn’t feel inaccurate. After losing her job, getting dumped and running out of yoga classes or mindfulness apps, Bertie’s life moves from chaotic self-centredness to something more fulfilling and grounded through her encounter with an old woman by the sea, the titular Violet.
The two characters meet when Bertie moves to a small, unnamed seaside town to escape all her London-based problems. To do so, she makes use of a cousin’s empty property. ‘I can rent her flat… what I mean is… live in her flat… and not pay rent’.
The audience laugh in what feels like recognition and I feel bemused- surely this is not relatable for basically all people? Am I just grossly underestimating how rich audiences and makers are? The story of Violet exists on a plane of huge privilege: the older woman is inexplicably loaded, Bertie owns a car which she keeps on a rented lot in central London, and has access to a family member’s coastal properties despite constantly telling us how broke she is. Money is never actually an issue which affects anyone’s actions in the show.
As a result, Violet lacks the complexity and bite of Poor Michelle’s previous show Thick Skin. In that show, all the characters were awful and selfish but it was interesting, and there were politics and intersections that threw up some damn difficult questions about our place in the world.
But if Violet feels a bit toothless by comparison, the show is carried and made enjoyable by an honesty, a genuine rhythmic swing and gentle charm. Bertie cries, and I hear her, that everything in London is just so much harder. It really, really is. The air is thick, everyone’s exhausted, I can’t find anywhere warm to wait for the hour before going to the bunker to I sit in the open concourse of London Bridge and eat my cheese and mayo sandwich. Bertie feels this, and moves to the sea.
Gauge’s set (she doubles as director-designer) is always in motion. It consists of a barrage of old furniture, cardboard boxes and packing crates. These pieces are rearranged to frame each scene, but it’s done in a pleasantly subtle way, allowing the scenes to be shaped by the different configurations: first it’s junk spilling over in Violet’s front room, then a bench, then a beach.
Bebe Sanders is a really, really good actor. (She probably hears this all the time, but she does look like Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.) And her words have such a nice rhythm: every sentence feels crafted and poised, falling through the air to a verbal cadence. The rests between scenes are some of my favourite in the show. The sections where Sanders just lets herself play. The best five minutes in the entire hour is Bertie and Violet’s first Lindy Hop class, where ‘Get Happy’ plays and Sanders dances alone, first shambolically, apologising to invisible class members, then ecstatically. It’s so great to watch.
Violet and Bertie develop a friendship which is built on dancing Lindy Hop once a week, building sacrificial bonfires and eating fish and chips. But the production suffers from both a lack of detail and context. Sanders describes the weight of London so accurately but the coastal (South West?) town feels vague and twee, with no apparent inhabitants other than Bertie and Violet. Ultimately, I don’t understand Bertie because I have no sense of her tethers to the world. Bombshells such as ‘my boyfriend Tommy was sleeping with my best friend Sophie’ don’t come across well because we’ve literally never heard of Sophie and all we know about Tommy is that he dumped Bertie and still has some of her clothes! And where are Violet’s friends? She is the life and soul of Lindy Hop, but we never meet them.
And I know it’s impossible to weave enough detail into a world without it being an exposition machine, but the message at the end of the play is that life is complex and messy, and loose ends don’t get tied up, and I don’t feel I have been given many ends to begin with. It’s testament to the heart of the show that I want to care, but despite its poise and rhythm, its real open charm, this production doesn’t let me.
Violet is on at The Bunker until 15th December. More info here.