‘Caroline, or Change’ review

Theatre, Musicals Playhouse Theatre , Charing Cross Until Saturday April 6 2019
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(17user reviews)
Caroline, or Change West End
© Helen Maybanks

An incandescent Sharon D Clarke powers the West End transfer of Tony Kushner‘s surreal civil rights-era musical

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.

By: Holly Williams

Posted:

Venue name: Playhouse Theatre
Contact:
Address: Northumberland Avenue
London
WC2N 5DE
Opening hours: Check website for show times
Transport: Rail/Tube: Charing Cross; Tube: Embankment
Price: £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min
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    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
    • Playhouse Theatre £20-£85. Runs 2hr 35min Book online
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Average User Rating

3.7 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:4
  • 4 star:5
  • 3 star:7
  • 2 star:1
  • 1 star:0
LiveReviews|17
3 people listening
tastemaker

Mixed feelings about this show! The story is set during the civil rights movement in the USA and centres around the dynamics of a family upstairs, and their maid, Caroline, downstairs. I found the story a little hard to follow at times, and not massively gripping. However, the set was really smart and versatile, the cast were very good, and the singing was exceptional! 

tastemaker

I went to see Caroline or Change yesterday and I still don’t know what to think of it. On the positive side, voices of the singers were amazing, bringing a great level of emotion to the songs, and the decor was really well done as well. On the negative side, the story was really thin. I had lots of expectations from it considering the interesting time the story is staged in (right after JFK’s death in Lousiana). But the story was not really moving much and I felt like the musical would have been better if i was shorter as some scenes were really dragging or were just repetition of the previous one.

tastemaker

The actors in this show are fantastic, especially Sharon D.Clarke as Caroline, but the script just didn't do a lot for me. I found the ideas of having actors play the radio, washing machine etc good in theory but a bit stunted in reality, they would drift on occasionally and do one song and then drift out. The show seemed to be centered on whether Caroline should take the money that the young Son leaves in his pockets or not and this went on for quite a while. I felt that other themes could have been explored, there's a lot to say here, but not much gets delved into deep enough.

tastemaker

Caroline, or Change! A fantastic depiction from Sharon D. Clarke of a house maid in 1963 Louisiana. The struggles Caroline faces as a single mother of four, with her eldest son away at war. Bills due, rent due and food still needs to be on the table. She was given permission to take the change found in pockets when doing the laundry, her relationship with Noah takes a turn when more than a few coins are found. Caroline doesn’t want to acknowledge the change that is occurring socially around her, with the civil rights movement, however accepts the change found in pockets for the sake of her family.

Tastemaker

This revival of Tony Kushner's 2004 semi-autobiographical musical play about a young boy's relationship with a black maid in a white Jewish household in 1963 Louisiana should seem dated, but its message about the physical and psychological effects of racisim is still, sadly, relevant. The powerhouse performance of Sharon D Clarke as Caroline, who labours endlessly in a hot, steamy basement doing laundry while the family upstaris disintegrates, first due to the death of the mother and then again due to the too-quick arrival of the stepmother, centres the story which mixes fantasy and too much reality. That the story begins just before the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, means that the hope for action on civil rights would be postponed (but would eventually culminate in the Civil Rights Act in 1964). Clarke's toil is interrupted by a Supremes-style singing group and a literally-bubbly figure and the woman in the moon who give her hope, as well as a tortured tumble dryer figure who reminds her of the hellish heat enveloping her. Her young charge Noah, still grieving for his mother, tries to make Caroline his surrogate mother, but Caroline's own struggles, including whether to keep the change that she finds in Noah's trousers, means that she is constantly under pressure, including in providing for her own children and missing her ex-husband. 


The play goes on a bit too long, with the second half introducing the discrimination faced by the extended Jewish family by staging a contentious dinner at which Caroline, her daughter and their friend serve. In addition, uisng a black actor to play a tumble dryer (he also plays Caroline's no-good ex-husband) seems patronising to say the least. But the magnificent blues singing of Clarke is not to be missed.

tastemaker

Caroline change!

This show is a good example of great performers doing their best with a not-so-good material and at the end not getting the "wow-effect" because of that.

I liked the actors (the children were especially fantastic) but the story didn't win me over and the songs weren't charismatic enough (there were many but non of them stood out for me).

Tastemaker

An amazingly harmonious production. Storyline although set in the 60s still rings true tiday- story of family, of cultures, religion and ultimately respect and forgiveness. Cast hugely talented- singing score and lyrics superb! A must see!

Tastemaker

​This is a musical unlike any I've seen before and I'm sad to say it wasn't for me at all. In fact it may even be the first show I've ever seen where I seriously contemplated nipping out during the interval and then neglecting to nip back in. 


Written by American playwright Tony Kushner, I knew it probably wasn't going to be a super fun, light or easy watch but as someone who recently loved 'A Very Very Very Dark Matter' and whose all-time favourite stage musical is 'Blood Brothers', (a show where subtitles should be on hand for visiting tourists unfamiliar with a Scouse accent), that didn't put me off going and it wasn't what left me cold during. 


The story follows Caroline, a maid in 60's Louisiana who keeps house for a recently remarried clarinettist, his new & very WASP-y New York wife and their precocious son who at first accidentally & then deliberately and misguidedly leaves his loose change in his trouser pockets for Caroline to find & keep...or not. The claustrophobia of her world is brought to life by actors portraying the inanimate objects that fill her days, namely a bubbly (literally) washer, a seductive dryer, a girl-group inspired radio and the world's slowest ever bus, a clever idea that I almost wish had been explored in greater detail throughout rather than just cropping up every now and then.


The Motown trio concept, something that's used so well in show like 'Little Shop of Horrors' falls a bit flat here with the ladies portraying the radio popping in & out as opposed to being more of a narrative idea throughout and to be honest, I found the whole show really disjointed. I didn't really care about any of the characters because I wasn't given the time to get to know and care for them, something that surprised me a bit given the running time devoted to Kushner's best known work 'Angels in America', which clocks in at over 7 hours! In fact the incessant choppiness made some of the characters ridiculously cartoonist and quite irritating - honestly I got to the point where I thought if that clarinet comes out once more, I'm actually gonna run rampage with my rented opera glasses and don't even get me started on the swinging moons...


There's no denying that overall the cast were great and that Sharon D. Clarke has a powerhouse voice that could bring a tear to your eye & a tremble to the boards she's treading but I found it incredibly hard to feel any sort of interest in or empathy for anyone. The show was sung throughout, often in octaves that bordered on the shrill and with a lack of clarity & enunciation from some of the cast that made it a challenge to follow. In the first half there was never enough time devoted to one scene or one person to get to grips with their plight and whilst the second half gave more room & time to allow them to breathe, I'm afraid I'd lost interest by then in both the story and the fate of the leading lady. The personal history that had left Caroline so disagreeable and unlikeable was clearly if a bit laboriously shown but I didn't feel it was delved into enough to warrant the almost god-like worship that was bestowed upon her. 


Absolutely a bold show and one that carves its own path through the landscape of musical history but in a city packed with theatrical diamonds, this felt more like the ubiquitous lump of coal.

tastemaker

An absolute knock-out, stunning home-run of a musical.  A must-see for any fan of musical theatre. Tony Kushner's writing is deep and poignant and touches on many serious issues that still retain relevance today. Sharon D. Clarke is an absolute sensation and is perfectly cast as Caroline. The use of personification to characterise the washing machine, dryer, radio and moon are sublime and make for an unforgettable evening of theatre. Book now and see it while you can!

tastemaker

WOW! I absolutely loved this production, if you are stuck for some Christmas present inspiration treat a loved one to this fantastic show.  What a talented ensemble of actors with voices to Kill and a decent score.  Set in the deep South of Louisiana in the 1960's the show addresses issues sadly still so relevant today of racism, poverty and religion. It is not trying to be heavy or overly serious, the washing machine even has it's own stunning bubbly voice. However it does have a poignant message delivered in a lighthearted way, as well as being just an incredibly entertaining show in itself musically. 

Tastemaker

Whilst I thought the story of "Caroline, or Change" was great and the acting and singing excellent - especially Caroline's daughter who has an epic voice and killer dance moves - I couldn't help but feel irritated by the constant singing. I feel that I would have connected to the story and felt more engaged if half the script was acted rather than sung.

I also felt some of the scenes were verging on pantomime and feel that they wanted to touch on many issues only mildly rather than just a few in greater detail. Segregation and racism and antisemitism and grief all popped up but none fully explored; in fact it was only the final scene that really told me what the show was actually about - I think - which is parenting and family love and pride. I think. But was it? I am not entirely sure? Maybe that's why, despite the talent of the stars, it gets just 3 stars from me that, and the constant singing, which I know is very much a personal thing you love or hate. 

tastemaker

Sharon D Clarke has an amazing singing voice.  The "3 degrees" in the show were a joy to listen to.  All performances were excellent.  Set in Louisiana in 1963, the Jewish and "Black" families mourned the assassination of JFK, the President they had invested so much hope in.  I found the plot shallow and had very little empathy with the characters:  so maybe this wasn't the best platform for serious messages.  Still, I would have liked more depth to the storyline to stop my attention wandering.  The wonderful singing saved the day.

tastemaker

Watched tonight at The Playhouse and it was a total joy. Sharon D Clarke is outstanding in the lead role of Caroline, a maid to a white Jewish family, during a time of change and political turmoil. The musical is full of undertones and explores racial bias, class and poverty but despite the serious topics we left feeling uplifted by the incredible score and amazing vocals from the entire cast. Top performances all round and a show definitely worth seeing.

Tastemaker

This was a really great show. Sharon D Clarke (Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Informer) plays a black maid working in the basement of a Jewish family's house. The story looks at the relationship between the family and the maid, and the maid (Caroline) and her own family. 


It was very moving, with fantastic acting. We were lucky enough to enjoy a Q&A with some of the cast after, which was very interesting. 

tastemaker

The scene is carefully set in the first act with Motown, opera-style moments and bluesy effects.The black maid Caroline(Sharon D. Clarke), masterfully conveys the pathos of a cleaning job stuck in the basement of the Jewish family who employ her. She is told to keep any change found in the son's pockets to teach him how to look after his money. Caroline hates the idea. Noah,(Aaron Gelkoff), the eight year old son whose father and hated step-mother employ Caroline, spends much time in the basement with the maid despite her sullen demeanour. Set in Louisiana in 1963, issues connected to poverty, race and momentarily, anti-semitism, are voiced. At times the audience involuntarily gasps. Such is the gravity of some verbal exchanges.

As the play moves forward so the intensity deepens culminating in a moving musical rendition by Sharon D. Clarke. I defy people not to wipe away a tear.

This is based loosely on the author and lyricist, Tony Kushner's life. The music (Jeanine Tesori), produces a rich Motown sound and switches to completely unrelated klezmer with Mr Gellman playing a mean clarinet. At times it's complicated music, challenging for anyone to learn so the young cast members should be especially applauded. Quite special.


Amazing. Fantastic voices and simple but engaging storyline. Humour and sadness (brought me to tears at one point). See it when it transfers - I hope it won’t lose the intimate feeling.

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