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 

Fun Home – Young Vic – review

Fun Home is a perfect musical

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Click here to see the YouTube review of Fun Home on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production photo of Kaisa Hammarlund and cast in Fun Home at Young Vic
Kaisa Hammarlund and cast in Fun Home at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

Fun Home is a perfect musical- a joyous story driven by mystery and tragedy; songs with clever lyrics and catchy tunes that give an extra depth to the tale; characters you believe in and care about.

The musical is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. We meet Alison as she’s in the process of creating her book. It’s an attempt to look back and understand how she tackled coming out and how her closet gay father came to commit suicide. As a song from early on says, ‘I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’

Although there is a central tragic event, this does not stop it being an uplifting evening.

Two younger versions of Alison take us through episodes of her life as today’s Alison narrates and comments. All the cast are tremendous singers and actors- Kaisa Hammarlund as the nervous narrator Alison, Eleanor Kane as the gauche teenage Alison and on the occasion  I saw it, Harriet Turnbull as the troubled small Alison, displaying a skill rare in an child actor.

Jenna Russell plays the suffering mother and Zubin Varla is tremendous as the complex father. There’s also great support from Ashley Samuels and Cherrelle Skeete.

Production photo of Fun Home at Young Vic London
Fun Home at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

The songs, composed by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, are by turns  humorous, heartbreaking and, most importantly, totally integrated into the story. Perhaps it helps that Lisa Kron also wrote the book.

A quick word of praise for David Zinn’s clever set which is like an extension to the father’s character. It’s detailed when it needs to be, spins round as scenes change, and is bleak and blank at appropriate times. And there is a wow moment late on.

There’s a lightness and movement in director Sam Gold’s tender, funny production that give the still moments huge impact.

Fun Home is a touching look at the relationship between parent and child and a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself. It’s the kind of evening I always hope for when I go to the theatre.

Fun Home is performing at Young Vic until 1 September. Click here for the Young Vic website

Watch the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube review here-