With Fun Home and Caroline, Or Change both achieving critical acclaim for their London runs, this UK premiere of Violet, directed by Shuntaro Fulita, is the third in a hat trick of Jeanine Tesori musicals to arrive in the capital in under a year. With book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, and based on ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim’ by Doris Betts, Violet, is one of those naturally feel good musicals, which alongside some tragedy and heartbreak, makes for a compelling watch.
It’s the title character that we follow, as she makes the long journey, on the famous Greyhound Bus service, from Spruce Pine in North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her pilgrimage will lead her to a televangelist (Kenneth Avery-Clark) who claims to have the power to heal the sick and disabled. Violet was disfigured as a child in an accident involving an axe, and the scar which now sits across her face is a constant reminder that she “isn’t pretty”.
In her journey across four American states, Violet meets a variety of characters who help her to tell her story, flashbacks to her childhood see the young Violet (played on opening night by Amy Mepham) interact with the father (Keiron Crook) who raised her on his own. Most significant amongst these fellow travellers are two soldiers, Monty who is young and impetuous, and Flick who is older and more compassionate, and being set in 1964, the colour of his skin makes an important point too.
With much of the action taking place on the Greyhound bus, the staging could have been in danger of being rather dull. Instead, The Charing Cross Theatre has been transformed, with audience seating installed on the stage, and what would usually be the flat row of stalls has now become home to Morgan Large’s ingenious set design. Set on a revolve, the passengers sit on variety of mismatched chairs, while large trunks are used to create everything from rest stop grills to the preacher’s chapel.
Violet is blessed with a tremendous ensemble cast, with each of them bringing something special to the production, particularly Simbi Akande with a roof raising ‘Raise Me Up’. Matthew Harvey is exceptional as Monty, enjoying some upbeat numbers as well as some nice duets with Violet, while Jay Marsh as Flick almost stops the show with a beautiful performance of ‘Let It Sing’.
In the lead role of Violet, Kaisa Hammarlund is simply outstanding. Her interpretation of the character is faultless, while her vocal performance is something very special indeed. This outwardly strong but internally fragile character needs to be played with subtlety and compassion, and Hammarlund excels in both.
Like so many road trip stories, the journey of the central character is metaphorical as well as literal, as Violet struggles with her own perception of beauty, tearing up magazines and comparing herself to movie stars, we recognise the beauty underneath. Indeed, for the audience the disfigurement is never seen, only reflected in the people she meets. While those flashbacks to her younger years help cement the notion of the unfulfilled life our protagonist has led, it sometimes feels messy and strained as two stories unfold at the same time.
If the story wasn’t enough to give you faith, the glorious score will seal the deal. A mix of country music, tinged with gospel and blues, Jeanine Tesori has ensured that the music is at the heart of this production, creating a wonderful feeling which lasts long after you’ve left the theatre.
Violet teaches us all a lesson, about how we view ourselves and each other. Wherever we find our miracle, it’s unlikely to be where we expected, and however we see ourselves, it’s unlikely that’s how others see us. Fantastic performances and a beautiful score make this a story worth telling.