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A CurtainUp London Review
Caroline, Or Change

"And if I'm lonely it doesn't matter
I think there's worse than being lonely
There's people who freeze while they wait on their knees
And they don't know for what
And they just been forgotten."
— Lyric from I Hate the Bus (sung by Emmie)
Caroline, Or Change
Me'sha Bryanas the Washing Machine and Sharon D Clarke as Caroline (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Written by Tony Kushner, Caroline, or Change follows an African American housekeeper, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D Clarke) during a period of her life when change is happening across the United States of America. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s saw long overdue changes to the rights of African Americans in the South. For Elyse Sommer's review in New York in 2003 and 2004 go here. This production at the Playhouse directed by Michael Longhurst has come from Chichester Festival Theatre via Hampstead Theatre.

Set in Lake Charles in Louisiana, single parent Caroline works in the basement of a middle class Jewish family house, with only a washing machine, a dryer and a radio all personified by actor-singers to keep her company. Caroline faces a series of events that cause her to question her integrity, her faith and her family in more ways than she thought she ever would. Throughout of all this there is one young boy who captures Caroline's heart, Noah Gellman (Jack Meredith), the son of the Jewish family for whom she works. It is Noah who brings Caroline around to seeing the world in a new light.

Jeanine Tesori's score is predominantly easy listening, drawing on Blues, gospel, spirituals, classical music and folk, with a cool, consistent sound but when there are moments of powerful emotion, it delivers the right amount of punch. This score was made for the lungs of Sharon D Clarke and Sharon D Clarke was made for the role of Caroline Thibodeaux. Her vocals are effortless and never lazy. Sharon delivers a knockout performance of her mega solo song, "Lot's Wife". However, the score can get too complex for its own good at points, noticeably at the beginning when a lot of characters are singing different lines simultaneously and it was difficult to decipher what was being sung. This was probably more of a technical issue as I have seen this device work in other shows.

Loosely based on an event from his own childhood, Kushner's story is naturalistic and draws you in with its realism. It does not try to show off or be flashy, but feels like the audience is observing a down to earth, real life story. This is very special because I think a lot of people could find themselves relating to many elements of the story. In fact, the production doesn't try to be anything that it isn't; it is raw and honest. There are many different topics that are quickly skimmed over, when I would have rather seen fewer topics explored on a deeper level. In terms of character development, there isn't one character that is significantly more developed than another. Every character is integral to Caroline's story.

Caroline is employed by Stuart Gellman (Alistair Brookshaw) who has married again after the death of his first wife. Rose Gellman (Lauren Ward) a New Yorker is adjusting to living in the South and is insecure in taking over as Noah's mother. In the Second act, the arrival of Stuart's parents for Hanukkah sparks interest as his father (Vincent Pirillo) leads the family in an Israeli dance and talks about his being a socialist. Caroline's daughter Emmie (Abiona Omonua) is helping out at the meal. The grandfather's present to Noah also causes a main issue as Rose has told Caroline to keep any change she finds in Noah's laundry to teach Noah to be more careful. Caroline feels uncomfortable about this.

Fly Davis' set and costumes are witty and creative: you can tell a lot of thought has been put into the details. For example, Me'sha Bryan who plays the washing machine wears plastic soap bubbles, and leggings that have same texture as the inside of a washing machine's drum. Whilst her cycle is running, she vibrates her body as she travels around on the stage's revolve. It is these quirky little features that add a hint of sparkle to the production.

Caroline, or Change is a sung through show for people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. It is an uplifting, heart warming story that has lessons for us all and with Sharon D Clarke giving a powerhouse performance, this is a show not to be missed.

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • 16 Feet Beneath the Sea
  • The Radio
  • Laundry Quintet
  • Noah Down The Stairs
  • The Cigarette
  • Laundry Finish
  • The Dryer
  • I Got Four Kids
  • Caroline, There's Extra Food
  • There Is No God, Noah
  • Rose Stopnick Can Cook
  • Long Distance
  • Dotty and Caroline
  • Moon Change
  • Moon Trio
  • The Bus
  • That Can't Be
  • Noah and Rose
  • Inside/Outside
  • JFK
  • No One Waitin'
  • 'Night Mamma
  • Gonna Pass Me a Law
  • Noah, Go To Sleep
  • Stuart and Noah
  • Quarter in the Bleach Cup
  • Caroline Takes My Money Home
  • Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw
Act Two
  • Santa Comin' Caroline
  • Little Reward
  • 1943
  • Mr Gellman's Shirt
  • Ooh Child
  • Rose Recovers
  • I Saw Three Ships
  • The Chanukah Party
  • Dotty and Emmie
  • I Don't Want My Child to Hear That
  • Mr Stopnick and Emmie
  • Kitchen Fight
  • A 20 Dollar Bill and Why
  • I Hate the Bus
  • Moon, Emmie and Stuart Trio
  • The 20 Dollar Bill
  • Caroline and Noah Fight
  • Aftermath
  • Sunday Morning
  • Lot's Wife
  • Salty Teardrops
  • Why Does Our House Have a Basement?
  • Underwater
  • Epilogue

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Caroline, or Change
Book and Lyrics: Tony Kushner
Composer: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Michael Longhurst
Starring: Sharon D Clarke, Me'sha Bryan, Dujonna Gift-Simms, Tanisha Spring, Keisha Amponsa Banson, Aaron Gelkoff, Jack Meredith, Isaac Forward, Ako Mitchell, Lauren Ward, Sue Kelvin, Vincent Pirillo, Alastair Brookshaw, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Angela Caesar, Abiona Omonua, Kenyah Sandy, Mark Mwangi, Jeremiah Waysome, David Dube, Josiah Choto, Raphael Higgins-Humes, Teddy Kemper, Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong, Zalika Henry, Teddy Wills, Laura Medforth, Timothy Quinlan
Choreography: Ann Yee
Set and Costume Design: Fly Davis
Lighting Design: Jack Knowles
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Musical Supervisor/Musical Director: Nigel Lilley
Running time: Two hours and thirty-five minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7631
Booking to 6th April 2019
Reviewed by Reece George based on the 21st December 2018 performance at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, London, WC2N 5DE (Tube: Embankment/Charing Cross)
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