Review: ★★★ Caroline, Or Change, Playhouse Theatre

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change, following sold out runs in Chichester and at the Hampstead Theatre, has now transferred to The West End and stars Sharon D Clarke (We Will Rock You, Ghost, The Lion King) as Caroline.

The show, based partly on incidents and memories from Kushner’s life, opens in Louisiana in the 1960s. The plot is very simple – Caroline Thibodeaux, divorced with 4 growing children, is introduced to us in the overheated basement of the Gellman household. She’s lonely, poorly paid, and wants desperately to do better for her children.

Noah Gellman (Aaron Gelkoff, who alternates with two other boys), mourning the loss of his mother, and frustrated with his father’s remarriage to her best friend, spends his time in the basement with Caroline. Noah has a habit of leaving loose change in his trouser pockets, and his step mother, Rose (Lauren Ward), attempts to challenge this by letting Caroline keep any of the money she finds. Caroline’s moral battle with this ability to take home extra dollars every week forms one of the main parts of the plot.

The Change in the show’s title can be seen as a play on words – does it mean the extra cash Caroline finds? Or the political change going on in America at the time? The show is set not only in the era of Martin Luther King, but also touches on John F Kennedy’s assassination, two major changes in the lives of Americans.

Whilst in the basement, the objects she is surrounded by; the washing machine, dryer and radio, are personified. This feels odd. And the moon is depicted by Angela Caesar sitting in ball, but this awkwardly spins in the air in a slightly ‘amdram’ way and evokes a trickle of laughter.

Dujonna Gift-Simms, Tanisha Spring and Keisha Amponsa Banson, playing the Radio, help Caroline keep in touch with the outside world whilst stuck folding laundry all day, and along with Me’sha Bryan (the Washing Machine), they provide power house, Motown-esque vocals, and a touch of glamour. Although this sometimes seemed forced, the quality of the singing was excellent.

Despite Caroline’s low spirit and financial woes, Clarke is a source of great energy. She is commanding as a performer and builds emotion throughout, ending in a real tear-jerking, self-reflective number towards the end.

The children, Jackie (Kenyah Sandy,), Joe (David Dube) and Emmie (Adbiona Omonua), bring a much lighter feel and bursts of energy to their numbers, day dreaming about life with a bit more money, and showing off their acrobatic abilities and talent being such young performers.

The themes discussed in the show are important; Segregation, discrimination, the underpay of maids, step-parents and their relationships with their new children, should all be tackled and in some elements, Caroline, or Change showcased them all. Many of them felt trivial though; as though there was potential missed for this show to educate its audience.

The fact that the show brings together so many different styles makes it almost impossible to gain any emotional connection to the piece. Only at one or two points is it possible to truly sympathise with Caroline’s struggle.

Musical Theatre has evolved over the last 100 years meaning that songs move the story forwards; they’re monologues with a tune. This storytelling is something the show lacks, potentially due to the overload of styles and overlapping vocal lines. Obviously it’s a challenging score for anyone to sing and the cast do so very well, but it is difficult to keep up with.

It’s tricky to know what the target demographic of Caroline, or Change actually is. Maybe it needs a second viewing to truly appreciate it – a benefit many critics will have had due to the productions previous incarnations, but for now it is difficult to recommend.

Evie Freeman

Evie Freeman
Evie Freeman

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