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Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre – Review

Aaron Gelkoff (Noah) and Sharon D. Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux) in Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre by Alastair Muir
Aaron Gelkoff (Noah) and Sharon D. Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux) in Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre by Alastair Muir

Looking at the programme for Caroline, Or Change whilst waiting for the performance to start, I was almost startled at what was in store: 29 musical numbers before the interval, and a further 24 after it: 53 songs. By comparison, the Wikipedia entry for the musical Les Misérables claims there are 50 in that show, and while there are apparently 66 in Motown The Musical, most are substantially truncated, and it is possible to count the number of songs performed in full on one hand.

No prizes, I suppose, for guessing that the show is entirely sung-through, with one musical number seamlessly blending into the next, each one driving the narrative forward. Set in Louisiana in November and December 1963, it makes a point of acknowledging the passing of President John F Kennedy, partly for the avoidance of doubt, and partly for his commitment, at least in words, to the civil rights cause. The set and scenery are just right. It’s not over-elaborate, which allows for slick and seamless scene changes, but it’s not like the show is always and forever in non-specific every-place: the upstairs/downstairs arrangement of the household owned by Stuart Gellman (Alastair Brookshaw) but governed by his second wife Rose (Lauren Ward) couldn’t be clearer if it tried.

This is the sort of show that requires a certain pace and energy to be fully engaging – without it, it would be a rather dull production about people going about their business. Just as well, then, that Michael Longhurst’s direction and Ann Yee’s choreography are, respectively, robust and elegant. The title character, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D Clarke) soldiers on with domestic chores. Some of her lyrics bemoan her present circumstances, with some justification, but as she works alone in the basement (as opposed to factory workers, for instance, who have the benefit of banter, at least to some extent), household goods become personified. It’s bizarre at face value, but it works: The Washing Machine (Me’sha Bryan) and The Dryer (Ako Mitchell) have much to say, or rather sing, as does the Radio (a glorious trio in T’Shan Williams, Sharon Rose and Carole Stennett that brought ‘The Supremes’ to mind).

It’s an extraordinary performance from Clarke, who, portraying a character who only tends to open her mouth when necessary, speaks – as it were – just as loudly when she stands, in silence, with miscellaneous activity going on around her, as she does in ‘Lot’s Wife’, this musical’s eleven o’clock number. That her emotions are kept in check for so long makes the late outpouring of reflective thoughts even more intense and incredible. Elsewhere, she’s smoking a cigarette, and the face says it all (though what ‘it’ is might be too much of a spoiler to elaborate on). Overall, it’s a masterclass in how the human voice can be used in a musical, or rather, an ‘opera’, as that is what writer Tony Kushner calls it. From powerhouse belting to subtle conversations, a vast range of sentiments are expressed.

Balancing out the vehemence and passion of Caroline is the intrinsically sharp wit of her friend Dotty Moffett (Naana Agyei-Ampadu): some much needed comic relief. Noah (Aaron Gelkhoff at the performance I attended; the role is shared with Charlie Gallacher), has such depth as a character that I had to remind myself both character and actor are children. It says something about the strength of Kushner’s writing that a child supporting role does much more than play with toys and say things that make the adult audience titter.

The score (Jeanine Tesori) is ably directed by Nigel Lilley, and the orchestra seemingly effortlessly glides through a wide variety of musical styles. And at the end, a powerful epilogue by Caroline’s daughter Emmie (Abiona Omonua) closes proceedings with a suitably majestic and hopeful finish. An earlier exchange of views between her and Mr Stopnick (Teddy Kempner) had me on the edge of my seat. This is a remarkably compelling production, gritty and sorrowful, brilliantly performed.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

1963. In quiet Lake Charles, Louisiana, the destruction of a Confederate statue might just signal that change is in the air… But, whatever the progress of the civil rights movement, in the Gellman household things seem just the same – for now at least. Eight-year-old Noah, heartbroken by the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage, sneaks down to the basement to spend time with the black maid he idolises, Caroline Thibodeaux: Caroline who runs everything. Whilst the basement may seem a fantastical place – even the appliances have a voice of their own – Caroline’s work there is repetitive and badly paid. But when Mrs Gellman comes up with a way for her to take a little more money home, the consequences for Caroline and Noah’s relationship are not what anybody might have expected…

An Olivier Award-winning musical with a hugely original, highly eclectic and uniquely American score, Caroline, or Change creates an uplifting and profound portrait of America at a time of momentous social upheaval.

A Chichester Festival Theatre Production.

Full cast: Sharon D. Clarke, Naana Agyei-Ampuda, Alastair Brookshaw, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Sue Kelvin, Teddy Kempner, Ako Mitchell, Abiona Omonua, Vincent Pirillo, Carole Stennett, Sharon Rose, Lauren Ward, T’Shan Williams

Caroline, Or Change
Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Designed by Fly Davis
Choreography by Ann Yee
Musical Direction by Nigel Lilley
Lighting by Jack Knowles
Sound by Paul Arditti
Casting by Charlotte Sutton CDG
Children’s Casting by Debbie O’Brien
Starring Sharon D. Clarke
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