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Caroline, or Change comes to London’s West End…
Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 musical has been on my must-see list for some time. Michael Longhurst’s production started life at Hampstead Theatre, moving to Chichester and now making a very welcome transfer to the Playhouse in London’s West End.
This wonderfully original and quirky production takes the age-old story of a maid and her masters and sets it amongst the backdrop of a steamy basement laundry room. The result is a fabulous mash-up of pure magical delight, with pitch-perfect performances from a remarkable cast.
Sharon D. Clarke’s portrayal of the stoic Caroline is quite phenomenal; her bluesy, velvety-soulful voice is stunning – nothing short of majestic. She is supported by some equally talented performers, in particular, Abiona Omonua who plays her daughter Emmie with a wonderful sense of feisty rebellion, and Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Caroline’s quirky friend. All of the children are exceptionally strong.
It’s 1963, Louisiana, where Caroline – single mother of four kids – is maid-servant to a comfortable, white, Jewish family. A shadow of her former self, her broken, weary mood reflects the deep dark basement of the grand house that she serves. Her dour, sullen character is juxtaposed with the sheer frivolous fun of a singing washing machine (Me’sha Bryan), tumble-dryer (Ako Mitchell) – and of course, the Moon (Angela Caesar). And then there’s a fabulous ‘Three Degrees’ – like trio singing on Caroline’s radio, giving us insight into her internal battles and the continual strife of bringing up four children on her own.
Upstairs we are introduced to the withdrawn, clarinet-playing master of the house, who has remarried family friend Rose (Lauren Ward) after the death of his wife. Rose is desperate to please and get it right but ends up getting it terribly wrong, both with the family and with Caroline. Alistair Brookshaw as pathetic, ineffectual Stuart Gellman couldn’t be better cast, as he retreats into his own sad world, neglecting both his new wife and his 8-year-old son Noah – played on the night of my visit by young talent Aaron Gelkoff.
Rose tries hopelessly to connect with Noah, who has displaced all his grief and isolation into Caroline, who he idolises. They share a daily ritual which sees him rushing home from school to light her one cigarette each day. Everything about this scene is uncomfortable, revealing as it does Caroline’s harshness towards the boy and her disregard for the very thing that caused his mother’s death from cancer. And yet this is the reality of their lives – a house full of broken characters, all scarred by loss and disappointment.
Despite the overriding themes of grief, inequality, bitterness, disillusion and dysfunction, you can’t help but feel light-heartedly elated by the fanciful, almost disconcerting animation of the surroundings…. Even the news of JFK’s death is broken by a singing bus that arrives to pick up Caroline and her friend after work.
Fly Davis’s set creates the upstairs-downstairs feel with a backdrop of very large ‘60’s graphics, and the revolving stage is used to great effect, turning to within the gloomy laundry room as it swings into life – then there’s the added joy of her glitzy costumes.
The feeling of elation is carried forth through the lives of Caroline’s (excellently cast) children who are full of joy, character and possibility for the future, giving the audience an insight into the character Caroline once was. You’ll come away empowered in the knowledge that her daughter Emmie will break the cycle and live the life her mother never could.
With its clever blend of pathos, hope and humour, Caroline, or Change is a pleasure and a real triumph.
Caroline, or Change
London WC2N 5DE
We also recommend Matilda, currently showing at The Cambridge Theatre, London, West End
For those living in West London, do check out the excellent Friday Night Cabaret at The Waterman Theatre