Caroline, Or Change – Playhouse Theatre – review

Tony Kushner & Jeanine Tesori’s great musical

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Click here to watch my video review of Caroline, Or Change on One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Production shot of Lauren Ward & Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change
Lauren Ward & Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

I managed to miss Caroline, Or Change when it was launched at Chichester, and again when it moved to Hampstead Theatre. Now that it’s transferred to the West End, I wasn’t going to miss it again. So how did I find it when I finally caught up?

Well, I was a little disappointed but not by the musical which is great. I’ll explain my disappointment later. First the good news.

Tony Kushner’s lyrics are poetic and witty and punchy. Jeanine Tesori’s music goes straight to your heart. Whether it’s to make you happy, sad, worried or hopeful, Tesori is masterful. She composes in a range of appropriate styles- Motown, spirituals, klezmer. And it’s sung through, which means it’s a non-stop ride of emotion.

Then there’s the magnificent Sharon D Clarke, with her deep strong voice. You feel her pain and her rage. Her solid presence is so appropriate for the character who is at the centre of what happens.

Sharon D Clarke isn’t the only great singer/actor. Abiona Omonua as her daughter and Lauren Ward as the mistress of the house are both particularly impressive in a superb cast.

Sharon D Clarke & Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change
Sharon D Clarke & Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Caroline, Or Change is set in late 1963, in the South of the USA, at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s a hundred years since the Civil War ended slavery yet black people are still subject to segregation and discrimination. A new generation is rebelling. Caroline represents the pivot point between the past and the future- not content with the situation but not a revolutionary either. As one of the songs says, ‘change come fast, change come slow but change is coming Caroline Thibodeaux’.

Caroline is a maid, trapped and worn down by her job. The story, though serious, is told in a quirky way. The domestic appliances talk to Caroline, as though she identifies with them. Michael Longhurst’s direction and Fly Davis’ design are wonderfully imaginative.

To add extra interest, her employers are not predictable white racist Southerners. They are a liberal Jewish family for whom the holocaust is fresh in the memory.

In this musical pain is personal as well as communal. The husband and son are grieving for a dead wife and mother, and the boy won’t accept the new wife (symbolised by a divided set), which is why he latches on to Caroline. She is in pain because her husband has gone. There’s a lot of feeling building up and ready to burst, both in the household and in society at large.

The word ‘change’ has a double meaning because Caroline is allowed to keep the change she finds in clothes when she’s doing the washing. She is humiliated both by the fact that she really needs what is loose change to her employers and by the condescending way in which she is being given it. This humiliation lights a fuse that burns until it sets off an explosion of feeling in the second act.

Caroline, Or Change offers a microcosm of a society in flux. It acknowledges that racism runs deep in society, among all ethnic groups, but it’s ultimately a story of hope. As Caroline puts it, in the stand-out song Lot’s Wife: ‘Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.’

For all that’s good about it, I wish I’d seen Caroline, Or Change in the smaller spaces of Chichester or Hampstead. The Playhouse doesn’t show the musical at its best because the large traditional proscenium arch stage of distances the emotions displayed in this intimate family drama with its low key incidents. Having said that, so many elements work that this is a show not to be missed.

Caroline, Or Change was performed at The Playhouse Theatre in London until 2 March 2019. 

Click play to watch Caroline, Or Change reviewed on One Minute Theatre Reviews 

Pick of 2018 Theatre Shows

Promotional image of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre. Photo: Jack Davison

I had a great year of theatre going in 2017. My best evening out was at the Soho Theatre where I saw Mr Swallow in Houdini. It was an hour of continuous laughter at its cleverness, clowning and sheer madness.

As for actual comedy drama, I really enjoyed The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier and James Graham’s Labour Of Love with Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig but outstanding for me was the revival of Joe Orton’s Loot at Park Theatre and The Watermill Newbury (where I saw it), now uncensored and funnier than ever.

The best musical I saw, Follies and An American In Paris notwithstanding, was On The Town at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre.

The best drama was the revival of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton. In fact there were many great acting performances this year- I’d also pick out Imelda Staunton again in Follies and Robert Lindsay in Prism but the crown must go to Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Looking forward to 2018

If 2017 was a good year, 2018 looks like being even better. There are so many wonderful prospects that it’s going to be very hard for we theatre lovers to choose what to see. Here’s my choice.

And straightway I’m having to choose between two productions of Macbeth. My money’s on Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre (26 February – 12 May) but there’s no denying the  prospect of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company (13 March – 18 September) in Stratford is hard to resist.

Promotional image of Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre
Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre

There are some fabulous musicals on their way. Tony (Angels In America) Kushner’s Caroline, or Change with Sharon D Clarke was rapturously received in Chichester. In 2018, it reappears in the lovely Hampstead Theatre (12 March – 21 April). Strictly Ballroom The Musical which I saw and loved a year ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse gets a well deserved London run at the Piccadilly Theatre (29 March – 21 July). The emotionally charged winner of five Tony Awards, Fun Home has its UK premiere at Young Vic (18 June – 1 September).

There’s a star studded production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party appropriately at the Harold Pinter Theatre (9 January – 14 April). When I say starstudded, the cast includes Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan to name but three.

Promotional image of Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court
Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court

I thought Carey Mulligan was wonderful in Skylight so I’m looking forward to her return to the West End in a one woman play by Dennis Kelly called Girls And Boys which describes the unravelling of a relationship. That’s at the Royal Court (8 February – 17 March).

Alfred Molina reprises his 2009 success playing the painter Mark Rothko in Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre (4 May – 28 July). It will again be directed by Michael Grandage and will also star Alfred Enoch.

Near to where I live, Nuffield Southampton Theatres open their exciting city centre space with a new play by local lad Howard Brenton. The Shadow Factory looking at Southampton in the Second World War runs from 7 February to 3 March.

Happy theatregoing!