Review: Caroline, Or Change (Hampstead Theatre)

The musical, directed by Michael Longhust, transfers from Chichester

Sharon D Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux), Ako Mitchell (The Dryer), T'shan Williams (Radio 1), Sharon Rose (Radio 2) Caroline, or Change
Sharon D Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux), Ako Mitchell (The Dryer), T'shan Williams (Radio 1), Sharon Rose (Radio 2) Caroline, or Change
© Alastair Muir

Unusual doesn’t begin to describe this magnificent musical by Tony Kushner, who provided the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music. It has a kind of bonkers bravura that wraps you in its enthusiastic embrace.

If you have to describe it, it’s the story of Caroline, a black maid, who works for a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963, surviving on 30 dollars a month – a servitude that is cruelly exposed when the new mistress of the house tells her she can keep the loose change swilling around in the pockets of the clothes that she loads into the washing machine each day. When Noah, the son, leaves 20 dollars in his pocket it precipitates an ethical and spiritual crisis.

But Kushner, drawing on his own memories of a much-loved domestic servant, turns this simple plotline into something rich and strange. As in Angels in America, he weaves a fantasy from grim reality, bringing a singing washing machine and a singing moon onto the stage, while never losing sight of the anger and bitterness that afflict black Americans struggling to feed their families in a time of radical social change.

Because that’s the other change that is in the wind. America is on the cusp of everything; JFK may have been assassinated, his promises to the black population unfulfilled, but Caroline’s friend Dot is in night school, her daughter Emmie is unafraid and politically engaged, and Caroline finds herself on the wrong side of history. She is trapped not only by her need to earn money to support her four children, but also by her fear of trouble. She resists the mood of upheaval surging around her, just as she resists taking the money from her employers’ pockets. Yet her anger at her position grows.

The musical explores all this with depth and sophistication. Kushner’s lyrics are a mixture of profound poetry, savage political analysis, and sharp humour. Tesori, who later wrote Shrek the Musical and Fun Home, matches him with music of subtle brilliance, incorporating every style from klezmer to spirituals, from jazz to Motown, blending and burnishing them into a surging whole, full of engaging melodies.

This production, a transfer from Chichester, is directed with real flare by Michael Longhurst who is increasingly establishing himself as one of the best directors of musical plays in the business. It’s designed by Fly Davis, with economy and imagination, conjuring the upper level and the basement of a 1960s home out of almost nothing, dressing the singing washing machine in a shift festooned with transparent bubbles, putting a red-hot element round the neck of the devilish drier, and adorning the Supremes-like trio who represent the sounds of Caroline’s radio in an ever-more elaborate series of glamorous dresses all topped with twisted aerials on their heads.

At the heart of it all stands a sublime performance from Sharon D Clarke that catches every note and beat of what it is like to be Caroline. Her voice is extraordinary, whether it’s in her great rumbling shouts of pain at her condition, or the delicate melancholy with which she recalls her feckless husband. But what’s also extraordinary is the stillness she brings to her part; you can see her sadness, her anger, her loss simply in the way she smokes her daily cigarette or stares out into the distance.

She turns "Lot’s Wife" – a soliloquy about her state to rival those of Hamlet and Mama Rose – into a great, pulsing, heart-rending monologue of sorrow about what she has become. It deservedly brings the house down.

She’s surrounded by a wonderful set of exuberant, telling performances, most notably from the lively household objects (Me’sha Bryan as the washing machine, T’Shan Williams, Sharon Rose and Carol Stennett as the radio, and Ako Mitchell as the dryer), from Abiona Omonua as her spirited daughter, and Naana Agyei-Ampadu as her quick-witted friend Dottie. As Noah, Aaron Gelkoff (on the night I saw it) brings such emotion to the part you forget he is only a child.

Ann Yee provides effortlessly clever choreography and Nigel Lilley conducts an excellent band. All in all, a thought-provoking and satisfying joy.

Caroline, Or Change runs at Hampstead Theatre until 21 April.