Caroline, Or Change

By Ian Shuttleworth

The pantomime season just past offered its usual delights at Hackney Empire, with the return of Clive Rowe, one of the most energetic dames in the land, and the recorded talents of actor/singer Sharon D Clarke. Clarke was recorded because, at the same time, she was appearing in person a few miles away in the title role of the musical Caroline, or Change; in that show’s UK première production in 2006, Rowe played and sang the part of a spin dryer. No, really.

Its writer, Tony Kushner, always tries to fit at least a quart, if not a full gallon, into a pint pot. In this case, we see Caroline, the African-American maid to a white Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, trying to come to terms both with the flowering of the American civil rights movement and with the awkward relationships in her own life.

The former is the macro-scale change of the title; its micro counterpart – literally small change – is the occasional dime or quarter left in his trouser pockets by eight-year-old Noah Gellman on laundry days. Noah’s stepmother Rose tells Caroline that, to help teach him responsibility, she should keep whatever money she finds in his pockets. It’s well-intentioned but casually condescending, and Caroline is humiliated by the charity and by her need of it: the odd quarter to the Gellmans could mean dental treatment for Caroline’s son.

Matters grow more and more heated (heated like the basement in which Caroline does the washing, accompanied by actors singing the parts of the washing machine, spin dryer and radio... see, I told you), culminating in a Hanukkah party when Caroline’s daughter and Rose’s Brooklyn-Jewish-leftie father have a ding-dong argument about the effectiveness of non-violent resistance.

A lot going on, then, and in that respect it’s typical Kushner. Let’s be frank: it’s usually too much, even in his two-part masterpiece Angels In America (revived in 2017 at the National Theatre). Here, though, instead of slopping down the sides of that over-filled pint pot, what all these ingredients do is fizz. Jeanine Tesori’s score blends contemporary musical-theatre idiom with a driving soul/gospel feel. Thankfully, the performers’ delivery matches, being more concerned with righteous intensity than with vocal frills. Clarke is the epitome of this approach: she has a powerful singing voice, yet it is also pure.

Guitarist (and husband of Toyah Willcox) Robert Fripp once said that the best music engages the head, the heart and the hips; it’s just as true of stage musicals.

Until 6 April at the Playhouse Theatre, London WC2,
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