Watching this performance of Parma Violets, I felt the opening scene was shoddily acted, hammed up and almost a caricature of young sapphic tenderness. By the time the show ended, it had become clear that this was by design. To spoil, that opening scene, essentially a dream sequence, is re-enacted in a more realistic and grounded light later on in the show.
Aside from that scene, Parma Violets is a wonderfully bittersweet love story between two girls in their mid-to-late teens: art student Sian Phillips (any resemblance to the Hedda Gabler thespian a coincidence; played by Nia Powell) and florist Helen (“just Helen”, played by Elise Fallon). Both alumni of the now-closed Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, Powell and Fallon also wrote this story, with direction by Emily Oxley.
Parma Violets is an important story to tell, featuring a type of cross-community love rarely touched upon: Sian grew up Christian. with applied knowledge of the Bible, Helen is a Traveller who lives in a caravan and has a curfew. I am not entirely sure if Elise herself is of a Traveller background, but her enthusiasm over the Epsom Derby (“the most important date in the Traveller calendar”) shows at least some knowledge beyond the superficial.
After meeting when Sian shoots some of Helen’s flowers for an art project, the two fall in love over slices of Pizza Hut [pizza] and a bit of stargazing. However, their longevity hangs in the balance as the Tory government enacts the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which aims to eradicate nomadic life in the UK, endangering Helen’s livelihood – and the relationship – in the process.
The bulk of Parma Violets is played as a tragicomedy, with Helen providing most of the comic relief to Sian’s bohemian calmness. One particular highlight of the show involves Sian educating Helen (and the audience) on Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers, discussing his attraction to rougher-looking flowers and calling his paintings of singular sunflowers (the Paris Sunflowers) her favourites – only for Helen to call Van Gogh “that Bangkok guy”. Genius!
Interludes in the story consist of soundbites from news channels regarding the Police Bill, monologues and dance sequences – I particularly enjoyed a scene where Sian spins around in a frenzy of romance and foundation. Admittedly, things like that made the storyline somewhat incohesive until around 15 minutes in – once you’re in the groove of dream sequences, monologues and actual plot, it quickly snaps into something easy-to-follow. However, the choice to finish on a more predictable note, followed by a final monologue, made the ending seem altogether abrupt, even though it was still effective.
The involvement of the audience as supporting characters in the play is definitely an inspired choice; I entered the Pit as a reviewer for Theatre Weekly and came out playing the role of a commuter, ready to start a fight. My role, however, wasn’t as central as the theatregoer who ended up playing the role of the “Lily man”, the man who buys lilies and acts as almost a third party in the relationship. To whoever the Lily man was that day – bravo!
I returned back home with a tulip in my hand and a smile on my face. In summary, while Parma Violets isn’t as mind-blowing as, say, a Love Hearts dip stick with sherbet that foams in your mouth, it’s still as divorced from a bag of aniseed-tinged Liquorice Allsorts as you can get. When it comes to penny sweets, a tube of Parma Violets is an unusually mesmerising choice, as perfumed as it is sweet. The play of the same name is just as sensational.
VAULT Festival 2023 runs Tuesday 24th January to Sunday 19th March, full listings and ticket information can be found here.
This review was written by a participant of the VAULT Festival New Critics Programme in partnership with Theatre Weekly. For more information about the VAULT Festival New Critics Programme, and all of our 2023 participants, please visit: https://vaultfestival.com/new-critics-programme/