Review - Caroline, Or Change (Playhouse Theatre)

It's 1963 and revolution is in the air in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Outside the courthouse in the middle of town, a plinth sits newly empty. Someone stole the Confederate Soldier statue which used to live there. But whilst the world changes and grows, Caroline stays just the same. A black maid and divorced mother of 4 who works for the barely-functioning clarinettist Stuart Gellman and his new wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, she spends her days in the family's basement, with only the washing machine, dryer, and radio to keep her company until Mr Gellman's young son Noah returns home from school and lights Caroline's daily cigarette.

Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
 The heat and the moisture in the thick Louisiana air is tangible as Caroline sweats away. She is statuesque, imposing, and yet she sings about drowning 16 feet below the sea, as the washroom appliances come to life and serenade her, bother her, torment her. Sharon D. Clarke has immeasurable presence as the titular character. She wears Caroline's pain, love, and conflict, perfectly. It's etched into her face. Every fearsome glower is tinged with sadness. Every tiny smile, although seldom seen, feels like daybreak. And although Caroline's rebellious daughter Emmie is, for all intents and purposes, Caroline's foil, Abiona Omonua carries herself with a similar aura; one of purposefulness, and self assuredness. However, a standoff between Emmie and the Rose's father during Hanukkah shows that whilst Caroline is resistant to change, Emmie revels in it.

Omonua's rendition of one of the musical's most poignant and touching songs, I Hate the Bus is a soaring, tear jerking Disney Princess style ballad. It's an I Want song, scored with beautiful piano and strings, and in it Emmie wishes for financial security, and the freedom to live on her own terms. Omonua's vocals, a mixture of bluesy belting and fluttering high note, impeccably conveys the optimism and confidence which characterises Emmie throughout the musical, and the number as a whole feels subdued yet immensely powerful.
Sharon D. Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Meanwhile, Lauren Ward's waspish and worn out Rose Stopnick Gellman is a piece of work, but a sympathetic one. As she tries to take on a maternal role with her new stepson Noah, by telling Caroline to keep any change she finds in any of Noah's trouser pockets, in order to teach Noah the value of money, she inadvertently places a wedge between Caroline and the Gellman family, which tears apart the household dynamic which has always been in place.

Tony Kushner's musical book is a mammoth to dissect. There's more characterisation in the first 10 minutes than most musicals manage in 2 and a half hours, and the cast do a fantastic job of breathing life into menagerie of Lake Charles inhabitants who play a part in the story.
The cast of Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Michael Longhurst's direction is complimented by Fly Davis' set and costume design, and the whole production comes together to capture the weariness of the script and wring it out on stage. Often a revolve is used to keep the action swirling and brewing. Lives change, lessons are learned, relationships are made and broken, and yet everything feels quiet, compact and commonplace.
Caroline, Or Change is a musical which captures the personal and intimate, but the tremors of rebellion incited by those fighting against racial inequality quake through from start to finish.

I was invited to review Caroline, or Change thanks to London Box Office