Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre: A ‘sensational performance’ from Kaisa Hammarlund with stunning music by Jeanine Tesori
At the charming Charing Cross Theatre, Violet tells the story of a young woman’s quest to find a cure. Anthony Walker-Cook reviews.
I’m starting to think that the Charing Cross Theatre has a secret rule when programming: only have shows that work surprisingly well as the nearby tube pulses past. For Marcus Stevens’ Mythic, this subterranean pulse perfectly portrayed the musical’s underworld setting. Now in Violet, with music by Jeanine Tesori of Fun Home fame and with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, the passing rumble captures the show’s focus on Violet’s journey, physically and mentally, to have her facial scar healed.
Set in 1964 and beginning in North Carolina, Violet opens with the titular character (Kaisa Hammarlund) waiting for the Greyhound bus. Once aboard, she heads to Tulsa to a televangelist in the hope of having a facial scar removed. Once on the bus, she meets soldiers Flick (Matthew Harvey) and Monty (Jay Marsh) and on her journey Violet learns that removing the scar on her face is not the only miracle she needs.
A suitcase, packed and tagged, in the middle of the stage at the beginning of the show indicates that travel will be a central tenet of this musical. The Charing Cross looks unrecognisable, with its cross-arch stage replaced with an in-the-round-style seating. A revolve has also been added, and is used sparingly but effectively. For all intents and purposes, Morgan Large’s set design, replicating and juxtaposing biblical scripture with magazine cut-outs of different parts of women’s faces, works very well indeed.
As Violet, Hammarlund puts in a sensational performance, her desperation, expectation, disappointment and need for acceptance are all monumental. Tesori’s songs mark the difficult line between hopeful and despairing so beautifully, and Hammarlund is attune to every nuance and shift. Through Hammarlund’s interpretation, Tesori’s music feels almost spiritual. A diminutive figure, as Hammarlund stands alongside Marsh and Harvey I’m distinctly reminded of Shakespeare’s words from Twelfth Night: ‘though she be little, she is fierce.’
Marsh’s performance is subtle and caring, but the sensuality needed for Harvey’s Monty was lacking. Especially impressive was Simbi Akanda during ‘Raise Me Up’ and Kenneth Avery Clark as the faux Preacher certainly left me willing to testify. Finally, Amy Mepham as Young Violet was assured and held her own amongst many strong voices throughout the show: it is a very confident and professional debut.
The plot of Violet focuses primarily on the bus journey towards Tulsa. 100 minutes with no interval, the opening and closing twenty minutes are sublime pieces of storytelling with exceptional ensemble performances. But, as might be expected when travelling anywhere by bus, the pacing of the show suffers during the middle section. Like the soldiers, we are deeply aware that Violet’s face cannot be healed by this healer. No matter how sincere Hammarlund is, in seeing the Preacher to be a phony the momentum that is supposed to come from Violet’s hope is lost. Granted there are flashback scenes and a sub-plot in Violet’s relationships with both soldiers, but Crawley’s book makes it difficult to stay devoted to Tesori’s music as the show rumbles along.
Fans of Caroline, or Change and Fun Home will once more be enticed and excited by Tesori’s music in Violet. Influenced by a variety of musical genres, the rhythms of the music and superb cast are heart-breaking and there is no doubt director Shuntaro Fujita has brought a fine production to the Charing Cross Theatre. ‘Left my troubles all behind me’, sings the ensemble early on in ‘On My Way’, ‘back there when I climbed on board.’ So put your headphones in and let the music of Violet wash over you as you make the long journey to Tulsa, it may provide the healing you need.
Violet is at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 6thApril, 2019.
Feature and production photographs by Scott Rylander