Sharon D Clarke, eh? What force. And what a voice. In Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical – which started at Chichester last year before moving to Hampstead Theatre and now the West End – Clarke plays Caroline, a black maid for a white Jewish Louisiana family in 1963, stuck in a life of drudgery for $30 a week. As a single mother of four kids, it’s not enough.
This domestic set-up is an unlikely one for a musical, and the character of Caroline is an unlikely lead. This is the brilliance of the show: Kushner burrows down into just two households, at a moment of huge global political change, to explore the realities of how change really comes about.
Caroline’s life has ‘buried her alive’: you can feel the weariness in Clarke’s bones. Caroline is sore, and sorely tested when Rose (Lauren Ward), her well-intentioned but hideously patronising boss, tells Caroline to start keeping any – yes – change she finds in Rose’s stepson Noah’s laundry, to teach him the value of money. Caroline is affronted, but those quarters make all the difference. Indeed, it is this complete inability of the white folks to see this difference in need, accepting rank inequality as ‘the way things are’, that hits home so uncomfortably today.
Kushner, drawing on his own childhood memories, continues to refuse the easy, obvious beats: there’s no tie-it-up-neatly moment of empowerment. At the end, Caroline’s struggle is still small – but it’s also huge. When Clarke, eyeballing us from the front of the stage, sings ‘Lot’s Wife’ in a voice that growls and belts and soars, it’s hard not to reach for clichés about roofs being blown off or houses being brought down. Let’s just say it’s the longest single round of applause I’ve heard in a theatre.
There’s also a joyful quirkiness to Kushner’s script that Michael Longhurst’s production embraces. Performers embody the machines Caroline must spend all day with: a washer and dryer come to life in Fly Davis’s zany costumes, while Caroline’s beloved radio is made flesh by three Supremes-style singers, a Greek chorus as well as a musical one. Adorable kids add pep; the night I saw it, Aaron Gelkoff was exceptionally good as the bouncy but bewildered Noah.
That inventiveness extends to Tesori’s music, which blends blues, Motown and more. As with her ‘Fun Home’, there’s a conversational tone to much of the rapid-fire rhythms and lyrics. Mostly this is great; occasionally it results in telling-not-showing that feels more bald than bold. It can also take a while to tune in – I heard grumblings in the stalls about struggling to follow.
But these are small complaints, really, in a show that feels truly original.