Review - Sharon D Clarke is 'extraordinary' in Caroline, or Change at the Playhouse Theatre

Caroline, Or Change
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Date: 
Tuesday, 18 December, 2018
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I've now seen Caroline, or Change, six times in all - three in its original production by George C Wolfe, in each stage of its progress from off-Broadway's Public Theatre in 2003 to Broadway's O'Neill Theatre in 2004, then London's National Theatre in 2006 (where it won the Olivier for Best New Musical); and three in Michael Longhurst's new British revival, launched at Chichester's intimate Minerva last year, then transferring to Hampstead Theatre and now the West End's Playhouse Theatre. And it has taken me a long time to pass from grudging admiration to unequivocal love.

I once had the original American cast recording in my car once that was broken into, and the thieves made off with it; I remember remarking to a friend, "It serves them right".  

Like its title character, a stoical but desperately unhappy housemaid to a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, it seemed to push away easy likability for me. Yet it also, like her, has a formidable strength and intense humanity.

And it is also full of real and daring originality. Here's a show in which the bleak basement laundry room in which Caroline Thibodeaux spends her work day suddenly become animated, literally, by the washing machine and radio coming to 3D life as singing actors; so, too, does the bus that she takes to work and the moon that provides a commentary on what is happening.

But the show also brings to life a piercing portrait of two families: Caroline's own four children (that come to work with her on occasion, with her eldest daughter belligerently daring to challenge the opinions of the family's grandfather); and the Gellman family that Caroline works for, and in particular, the bereaved boy Noah who has lost his mother and is now being raised by his father (who prefers to play the clarinet than engage with his family) and his well-meaning but floundering stepmother.  

This is all played out against a charged political landscape in which a confederate statue dominates the stage when we enter, in Fly Davis's brilliant design, but will have been destroyed by the beginning of the second act, and JFK's assassination.

In its delicate interweaving of the personal, the political and sometimes elliptical, it is no surprise that book and lyrics are by Tony Kushner, whose best known work Angels in America is a kaleidoscopic portrait of America in the era when the crisis of AIDS first emerged. This show similarly takes the pulse of racial politics in 60s America with edge and clout that feels particularly resonant again today, as Trump's America replays these conflicts again.

But it is, for all its artfulness, a supremely entertaining and refreshingly adult musical. Jeanine Tesori's score - ravishingly rendered in all its jazzy glory by a band under musical director Nigel Lilley - is a stunning collection of heartfelt melodies and arias.

Longhurst's production fields a stunning ensemble cast, but it is naturally and peerlessly dominated by an extraordinarily fierce and contained performance from Sharon D Clarke in the title role. In musicals from Once on this Island to Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess, and plays from The Amen Corner to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, she has emerged as one of our very finest stage actors; this production puts a seal on her bid for stardom.

And the show, as a result, finally puts a seal on its bid for my undying love.


Caroline, or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre until 6th April. 

Caroline, or Change tickets are available now.  

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