REVIEW: CAROLINE OR CHANGE (Playhouse Theatre) ★★★★

Tony Kushner‘s magnificent new musical Caroline Or Change has transferred from Hampstead earlier this year (and Chichester Minerva before that) to the Playhouse Theatre, largely with the same cast intact. Some of the intimacy of those previous venues is lost in the transfer but the power of the music and the central performances still manages to connect with the West End audience.

It is a musical of its time (1963) but is also relevant for today. As Kushner explains in his programme notes, the play comes from sorrow, anger and grief but also hope learned from history that has shown both the terrors and also the pleasures of change. It is about a period of American history around the time of JFK’s assassination in the streets of Dallas and close to one hundred years since the American Civil war ended slavery: a time of race relation tensions and the civil rights movement of African Americans. It’s highly charged emotional themes resonate with the global tensions of today and the desire for change with greater diversity and equality in every field.

It is powerful musical built around strong black female characters with soulful voices. At the centre of them is Caroline, the maid to the Jewish Gellman family, proud and hard working but struggling with her own grief and supporting her children as well as adjusting to the societal changes. A twenty dollar bill becomes the catalyst for change in the Gellman family and for Caroline herself.

Sharon D Clarke is awesome as Caroline, the maid of twenty two years who never smiles, bearing her sorrow with a stillness and pent up anger as she belts out her melancholy songs with emotion and strength. Her daughter Emmie (Abiona Omonua) reflects what is going on outside the basement that imprisons her mother and becomes the rebellious mouthpiece for change. She is full of energy, animated and sassy and the symbol of a more optimistic future.

As Caroline grapples with her feelings and religious beliefs while going about her daily routine in the Gellman’s house, she finds herself in a flight of fantasy talking to the domestic appliances. A bubbly, agitating Me’sha Bryan is the washing machine, a sexy, dynamic Ako Mitchell is the dryer and the trio of Tanisha Spring, Dujonna Gift- Simms and Keisha Amonsa Banson are a Supremes like portable radio, shimmying across the stage in long gowns, tight bob haircuts and radio antenna headdresses. They are supported by a strong ensemble.

There are delightful performances from the young boys in the show especially on the night I saw it by Aaron Gelkoff as Noah Gellman who has such as a pivotal role in the show and explores the emotions of a distant father, a new step mother and overbearing grandparents. The tension mounts and then explodes when Caroline and Emmie are asked to serve the Gellman family Chanukah party.

Director Michael Longhurst and designer Fly Davis have done an excellent job creating the Gellman’s home including the physical divide in the family and uses a revolve, a raised balcony and flying moon to great effect. There is wonderful positioning and blocking in the critical scenes to heighten the relationship tensions.

The music throughout by Jeanne Tesori is a joyous eclectic mix of styles of the fifties and sixties with Jazz, Blues, Motown, Soul, spiritual and even a Christmas Carol blended together with a minimum of dialogue. My personal favourites were the “Laundry Quintet” with its delightful harmonies, “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw” which closes Act 1, “Santa comin’ Caroline” which opens Act 2, “1943” which reveals her back-story, and then the closing emotional crescendo of “Lot’s Wife” and “Salty Teardrops”. All of them feature Caroline, Emmie or the domestic appliances in engaging entertaining delivery and choreography capable of being show stoppers. The final “Epilogue” by Emmie and her brothers brings hope and optimism.

The overall effect is moving and inspiring, reminding us of the changes that have been achieved over the last fifty years, encouraging us to embrace change- even if it hurts- and showing the power of family love to support change. This delightfully original show deserves to reach a wider audience at the Playhouse in the West End and Sharon D Clarke will surely get more award nominations for her powerful central performance.

Reviewed by Nick Wayne


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