Review: Violet (Charing Cross Theatre)

Kaisa Hammarlund stars in the UK debut of Jeanine Tesori’s musical

Janet Moody (Old Lady) Rebecca Nardin (Young Violet) Kaisa Hammarlund (Violet)
Janet Moody (Old Lady) Rebecca Nardin (Young Violet) Kaisa Hammarlund (Violet)
© Scott Rylander

Although it predates the same composer's acclaimed work on Caroline, Or Change and Fun Home by a number of years, Violet – first seen off-Broadway in 1997 – is only now receiving its UK premiere. On the basis of the 2014 Broadway revival cast recording featuring Sutton Foster in the title role, it was hard to imagine why it was taking so long. Jeanine Tesori's music is absolutely beautiful: a soaring, haunting smorgasbord of modern(ish) American musical styles from bluegrass, country and folk to belting rock anthems and gospel, well matched by Bryan Crawley's intelligent lyrics.

It is therefore something of a disappointment to discover that Violet on stage is neither as emotionally satisfying or dramatically interesting as one had hoped, or at least not in Shuntaro Fujita's visually striking but slightly unfocused staging.

It is certainly not the fault of the exceptionally strong cast, every one of whom performs with passion, commitment and magnificent singing voices. As the eponymous heroine, facially disfigured in a childhood accident and now travelling across the heartland of 1960s America on a Greyhound bus to seek healing for her damaged visage, Kaisa Hammarlund is outstanding. Despite a southern accent that sometimes wavers, this is a fiery, boldly sung interpretation of a desperate young woman whose feistiness sometimes makes her surprisingly hard to like. She is a refreshingly different musical theatre heroine, and Hammarlund inhabits her fully, proving once again, after her superb work in Fun Home last year, that she is as impressive an actress as she is a singer.

As the two soldiers Violet forms uneasy alliances with, Jay Marsh and Matthew Harvey deliver sterling, committed work, as does sweet-voiced Amy Mepham, one of three youngsters sharing the role of Violet as a child, and Keiron Crook as her guilt-ridden father.

If Crawley's book is sometimes confusing as it switches between past and present, and affords only the sketchiest of characterisations beyond the title role, it effectively conveys a sweaty, grimy Middle America where racial intolerance and religious hysteria are constantly waiting to rear their ugly heads. Morgan Large's slatted, rustic, abstract set is a knockout, moving the Charing Cross stage to the middle of the room with the audience ranged in banks of seats on either side, and it is atmospherically lit by Howard Hudson.

The flattening, booming sound design is patchy however, often rendering lyrics unintelligible when more than one person is singing, and the hollering evangelicals who Violet hopes will cure her damaged face really outstay their welcome, despite some astonishing vocals from Simbi Akande.

Whatever my reservations, this is undoubtably a show that musical aficionados need to see. It may lack the sophistication and emotional engagement of Caroline, Or Change and Fun Home, but it introduces us to an unconventional, memorably troubling and troubled central character, and it is full of terrific music.