One day I hope historical plays and musicals that examine racism and division won’t be resonant, but I have little faith that will ever come to pass. Certainly not today, and certainly not in the case of Caroline, Or Change, which packs a powerful relevant punch despite the fact that it is set in the Deep South in 1963.
You see, this production is centred around Caroline (bow down to Sharon D Clarke), a black maid to a white Jewish family, and examines the casual racism, structural racism, the scars it leaves and the inter-generational rifts it creates in Caroline’s life. And all these factors, themes and subplots blend together to create a revolutionary, confrontational and affecting spirit that feels as necessary today as it was in the Sixties.
Indeed, I couldn’t help seeing, in particular, the fractured relationship between Caroline and her eldest daughter much in the same way as I saw the angry and heart-breaking inter-generational debates in debbie tucker green’s ear for eye.
Not that this show is following in debbie’s footsteps, mind. Caroline, or Change has been wowing audiences all year from Chichester to Hampstead, and now in the West End where I finally grabbed my opportunity to see this. And what a wonder this production is. What a spectacle! What performances! The five-star reviews are all richly deserved. This is a spellbinding production that mixes the surreal with cold reality, humour with dark sorrow, and in Sharon D Clarke has surely the standout musical performance of the year.
Director Michael Longhurst has fashioned a production that is as revolutionary in form as it is in substance from the source material by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home). But in order for me to explain the form, let me explain the substance first because that is special too and far more important than first glances may make it out to be.
Sharon D Clarke is Caroline Thibodeaux, the black maid to the widowed Mr Gellman (Alastair Brookshaw) and his young son, Noah (Aaron Gelkoff). It seems an unremarkable set up but, as the show’s program explains, that is far from the case. For black maids are invisible in a white world. They are ancillary, an add-on. An oft-overlooked addendum to white lives. And that is only emphasised here by Caroline’s confinement to the basement of the Gellman household where she passes the many hours tied to the washer and dryer as she ploughs through the mounds of unclean clothes.
But here she is the centre of the show and its story. The white lives are marginalised and the black woman takes centre stage. It is her basement world we interrogate – a bizarre safe space where fiction and reality blur as songs on the radio speak directly to Caroline, the washing machine sings to her, and the stifling heat of the dryer manifests as a devilish troublemaker. Only this bubble is repeatedly punctured by the young Noah who sees Caroline as a possible mother-replacement figure; a woman he can talk to and confide in – though this is not a role that Caroline welcomes.
The basement is Caroline’s refuge from the world and its injustices and the creative team has invested heavily in making this a fantastic magical parallel space where washing machine bubbles sing, and doo wop girl groups leap out from the radio to play devil’s advocate on Caroline’s shoulder. And their upbeat eccentricity provides a powerful contrast to Caroline’s bleak and defeated outlook.
When a new (white) woman appears in Mr Gellman’s life though, Caroline’s plod-through existence is thrown into jeopardy, as it is by the Civil Rights movement outside gaining strength, calling on Black people to stand up and confront the white power structures that oppress them, leading to Caroline’s daughter to mock her mother’s obedience despite the fact that her mother suffers only for her.
It’s one hell of a balance to maintain but never once does this magical production ever misfire, lose its energy and eccentricity, or misplace its dramatic core. It is stupendously wonderful: the moon serenades Caroline’s night-time strolls home, presidential assassinations are marked with mournful bus journeys home, and Hanukkah celebrations end up in spikey exchanges.
And all the while, as the drama unfolds, the eccentric world that Michael Longhurst and designer Fly Davis have created continues to spin its charm – singing washing machine bubbles float by, the Supremes-esque girl group wows with their star turns, and the repressive heat from the dryer brings out some wickedly witty songs.
Each element is perfectly balanced, and none overshadow (or could possibly overshadow) Sharon D Clarke’s extraordinary central performance. For much of the show she is at heel and seemingly broken with tell-tale signs of a repressed anger occasionally bursting through. But the big number finally comes, and the song Lot’s Wife sees Sharon burn it all down in a firestorm of a rendition. The response from the audience was instant and long-lasting – Caroline may not singly overcome the immense hurdles in her life but in Sharon D Clarke the writers and the director found the performer to bring to life this woman who never stops fighting in her own way as best she can.
Playhouse Theatre, London, to April 6, 2019.
Tickets from £32.50.
All production images by Helen Maybanks.