Caroline, or Change
Playhouse Theatre, London

Sharon D Clarke interview - 'I hope people are moved by Caroline, or Change'


Chichester Festival Theatre is making quite a name for itself in the West End this year. First, James Graham’s Quiz transfers to the Noel Coward next week, Ian Mckellen’s King Lear will be revived at the Duke of York’s in the autumn, and tickets have just gone on sale for the West End transfer of Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change, which is led by Olivier Award-winning actress Sharon D Clarke.

Clarke plays the title character, the maid for the Gellmans, a Jewish family living in Louisiana in the 1960s. Son Noah Gellman is struggling to adapt to life without his mother who has died from cancer, and the remarriage of his father to his mother’s best friend. Caroline must cope with a lonely life in the basement, hardly able to provide for her four children.

The show was well received in Chichester, and received a transfer to the Hampstead Theatre this month. As tickets go on sale for the West End transfer to the Playhouse Theatre in November, we spoke to Sharon D Clarke.

What is the story of Caroline, or Change, and who is Carline Thibodeaux?

The premise is very simple, but it has so many layers and is quite complex. You have Caroline who works as a maid for a Jewish family. For Caroline, working in their basement is hell – it’s swampy, muggy and hot as hell – and she’s very underpaid, on the poverty line. Noah’s mother has just died of cancer, and his father has since married her best friend, Rose. Rose feels very out of place in a house with a family who is grieving, and is trying to have the relationship with Noah. Noah has grown up with Caroline, gets on with her, and wishes she was his mother. Caroline can’t afford that emotional attachment, she has four kids of her own.

Noah has a terrible habit of leaving change in his pockets, and Rose says “if you carry on leaving change in your pockets, Caroline can keep the money”. Caroline is insulted by this, she now feels like she is being paid by a child. But her economic situation is such that a leftover dollar for Noah is food for her family.

And she sings to her washing machine…?

She’s in the basement alone all day, so she talks to the radio like some people do. A bit like how people comment at the telly on Gogglebox. The appliances become her outlet, but for the audience, the appliances show you different facets of Caroline: her heart, her head, her conscience.

Director Michael Longhurst said this was a part you were ‘born to play’. Do you feel the same way?

I love playing her and sharing her story. She’s very strong, fiercely loving and loyal. To play someone who is sad and angered by her situation is a real joy, as it is to honour those women who went through all of that. Ako Mitchell plays the Dryer, and his grandmother was a maid in Chicago. It honours his history and makes me think of my parents who came from Jamaica to make a better life for me. I never thought about playing the role myself, but I always thought it was wonderful. I like playing strong women, whether it’s someone flawed like Killer Queen, or someone like Caroline.

Do we need to see more of those roles in the West End?

There can always be more. I’m always looking for stronger roles and role models for women on stage because young women - and young men - need to see that. Men need to see strong women and not be afraid or threatened by that, but see it uplifting for us as a society.

It’s a musical, but it’s almost an opera as it's sung-through, and the score combines tonnes of musical styles as it draws on the African American and Jewish influences…

And classical, too. When Tony was growing up, his parents met playing in an orchestra. Jeanine is the most wonderful composer, and she’s weaved these musical threads together and created something that is a unique, eclectic musical style that is completely her own. I’ve not witnessed it in any other musical before.

The show wasn’t seen in the UK for 12 years, does it feel timely to bring the show back now?

It’s a story that is very relevant to today and should be seen be a wider audience. When we opened the show in Chichester last year, we opened the week they were taking down the Confederate statues, and of the Charlottesville neo-nazi rally. But this story is being told in 1963, and it shows that people are still fighting through inequality. Shows like Caroline hold up the mirror and says ‘these are issues that are still strong today, we need to take stock and look at where we’re heading’. Five years ago, doing this show wouldn’t have resonated the same as it does today, but the universe conspires that these things come into rhythm at the right time.

How would you convince someone to buy a ticket for the West End run?

I would say: “Come and be moved.” I’m hoping that audiences are moved by the end of the show and it makes them think about what is happening in the world, how little we have moved on, and how we have moved on, for everyone'

Caroline, or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre from  20th November 2018 to 9th February 2019.

Caroline, or Change Tickets are available now.

Looking for the best seats...