Saturday 14th April 2018 at Hampstead Theatre, London.
After opening at The Chichester Festival and now playing at Hampstead Theatre, this production of Caroline, or Change will soon find its third home when it transfers to the Playhouse Theatre in November. It takes approximately five minutes to see why this production is set to take up a new residence after the current run; this is a wonderfully different take on musical theatre and I can think of few other productions able to weave a dramatic narrative through music with such delicate complexity.
With book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, this is a sung-through production but it’s a far cry from the likes of well known sung-throughs like Les Mis – this is a gentle and darkly playful musical which uses music very much in service of the story rather than explicitly highlighting memorable big numbers whenever possible. Caroline, or Change is many things; new, funny, fearless, gritty, and full of intensity but most of all, it’s a production which skilfully combines many styles and rhythms with great sophistication and a modern flair.Directed by Michael Longhurst, this production benefits from the considerably versatile abilities of Sharon D. Clark who brings a darkly charismatic character to life with quiet intensity. She also contributes a singing voice of beautiful depth and density which forces us to really engage with the gravity of her character’s situation. As Caroline Thibodeaux, she manages to portray both a removed, morose (but crucially, never indulgently so) individual struggling to find peace with her lot and the struggles of her past as well as a person capable of warmth and wit – however dry.
Caroline is under no illusion about her past or future but she is never indulgently miserable – instead, she uses her hard-won wisdom to deliver brutal home truths, without any malice, where others might have felt a need to placate. Caroline’s life hasn’t been easy and as a forty year old maid working for a privileged middle class Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, things show no sign of changing.The family for which she works have their own problems of course, which the cast deliver feelingly; Stuart Gellman’s (Alastair Brookshaw) second wife (Lauren Ward) is desperate to connect with a now motherless son (Charlie Gallacher) while also attempting to befriend the disillusioned and disinterested maid through well-meaning but tone-deaf gestures. The father seeks release through music, the wife craves connection where there is none available and the son dreams of a life in which he is part of Caroline’s world. In a community buckling under the strain of racial prejudice, the civil rights movement provides great hope for some but creates friction with older generations and causes Caroline’s story to take a sharp twist as cultures and ideals clash.
Principles waver as maternal responsibilities mount and what starts as a lesson for a youngster about the worth of pocket change becomes a stark and disturbing message about the insidious nature of malicious talk among grown ups – Sondheim is most certainly right; children will listen.Puzzled at first by the quirky futuristic costuming of characters arriving into the first basement scene, I found myself very quickly taken with the inspired decision to have the appliances physically manifested in walking, talking characters who torment Caroline each day as she completes the chores; they narrate, provide some company and also the odd emotional prod as the ever solemn Caroline goes about her daily work.
The Washing Machine is played by Me’sha Bryan, The Dryer by Ako Mitchell and the radio by the formidable trio T’Shan Williams, Sharon Rose and Carole Stennett. Each has a gorgeous voice of course, with Bryan providing sweet, light and melodic tones, Mitchell offering deep, broad sounds as well as mellow, sensual notes while Williams, Rose and Stennett provide fantastic melodies showcasing pitch perfect harmonies as they belt out sixties girl group style numbers. It’s truly brilliant. The Moon is also given a face and a voice, with Angela Caesar’s operatic tones providing commentary on the action below as she sits above the stage upon a suspended crescent.Other performances to impress include Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s Dotty Moffett; a fellow maid and equally as fed up, but nowhere near as defeated and angry as Caroline. Agyei-Ampadu’s performance doesn’t just impress through her powerful vocals and the velvet quality of her voice but also through a layered dramatic portrayal of someone just like our protagonist who somehow escapes Caroline’s mental darkness. The young actors in this production are superb, arriving with an impressive confidence in their abilities despite young ages.
Josiah Choto and David Dube are brilliant as Caroline’s lively and loving children Joe and Jackie and they’re joined by Abiona Omonua as Caroline’s spirited, principled daughter Emmitt to provide challenges and expectations for Caroline. Charlie Gallacher is fantastic as Noah, the little boy nipping at the heels of the irked Caroline, eager for attention after the loss of his mother – Gallacher’s ability to deliver the various stages of Noah’s journey makes his performance a great highlight and he makes for a superb sparring partner with our leading lady.Set and costume designer Fly Davies perfectly connects the space both literal and metaphorical between Caroline’s dated surroundings below ground in the basement and the vibrancy emerging in popular culture above. The costumes of the radio are classic visions of sixties fun spirits while the washer sports a bubble adorned plastic ensemble and the dryer conjures heat through a fluorescent ring around his neck and matching costume.
The set for the main space is a blank page on which Caroline’s story plays while an upper level simply suggests the house of the family. Two revolving sections of the stage facilitate some excellent visuals during the musical sequences but there’s nothing showy about this production; it’s all heart, all drama and all tension featuring a sensitive musical narrative. The auditorium is almost constantly filled with smoke and hazy lighting, giving the Caroline’s melancholy a visual reflection while reminding us that she spends her days below ground and away from the world.What strikes most deeply about Caroline, or Change is the central story of an individual so downtrodden by circumstance and so far removed from her softer side who is forced to make a change – to step back and see what she has become. What impresses most about it is its refreshing approach to presenting a meaningful drama through music and its intelligent combinations of traditional and modern means of presenting a narrative.
The production expertly handles a range of complex narrative threads and does justice to each key character while also using eclectic music to propel a gripping narrative rather than simply to entertain. I couldn’t hum you the tune of a single song, or offer you a lyric – yet that’s far from criticism, because the songs are perfectly crafted to give each scene full impact in the moment, but I’m happy to leave the music with Caroline and her story when I leave the theatre – I have no desire to find this cast recording to accompany road trips as is often the case with modern musicals. Kushner puts it beautifully when he says ‘words can be graceful, but music is grace itself’ – it seems odd that such a sad tale should be so beautiful but Caroline leaves us with a glimmer of hope in the closing scenes.
With a superb cast, voices which soar generously and a perfect lead in Sharon D Clark, you should definitely add Caroline, or Change to your must-see list.
Caroline, or Change plays at Hampstead Theatre until April 21st 2018 and you can find tickets here. From November, Caroline, or Change will play at the Playhouse Theatre, and tickets can be found here.