The Theatreguide.London Review
Playhouse Theatre 2018 - 2019
object lesson in how casting, particularly of someone with real star
power, can reshape a show, this revival of Tony Kushner and Jeanine
Tesori's drama-set-to-music feels like an entirely different event from
the version first seen at the National Theatre in 2008. And the difference
is Sharon D Clarke.
is set in the American South in 1963, as the experiences of a liberal
white family and their black maid encapsulate some of the complexities of
race relations in that time and place.
years ago the play seemed to be about the family, and the way these
honourable, liberal, well-meaning Jews – there's even a Communist
grandfather – discovered an unconscious racism in the mix of exploitation
and patronisation in their treatment of their maid.
plot, along with the pun in the title, turns on the practice of letting
Caroline keep any coins she finds in the clothes she launders, and
everyone's mixed feelings about that clumsy attempt at charity.)
powerful presence of Sharon D Clarke in the title role makes this
unquestionably a play about Caroline, and it is all the better and
stronger for that – because, frankly, Caroline is the more interesting
position of the black maid in white households in America has always been
fraught with ambiguity. Caroline puts up with a dozen almost imperceptible
insults a day because she desperately needs the money, and Clarke makes it
clear that the slow eating-away at the maid's soul is the real drama to be
bears some resemblance to August Wilson's Fences in that both look with
sympathy at the generation of African Americans just before the Civil
Rights and Black Power movements, those who were aware of how far they had
come and could only see the danger of loss in rocking the boat as their
children were aching to do.
Sharon D Clarke brings is a depth of characterisation that makes clear and
emotionally overpowering that Caroline's resistance to change is built on
a fear of what it will release in her.
there in the text, in a climactic song in which Caroline briefly lets
loose the accumulated rage of a lifetime of subservience. But it takes a
performer with Clarke's dramatic power to bring that alive, and to have
shown us enough boiling under the surface all along to make the moment
both believable and frightening.
soliloquy is a very strong song, suggesting Rose's Turn from Gypsy, but
with much more at stake. And there are a couple of other effective musical
numbers, an expression of the younger African American generation's
ambitions by Caroline's daughter (Abiona Omonua) and a comic song for the
generally the almost-completely-sung-through score is a disappointment.
Too many of Tony Kushner's lyrics are prose disguised as verse, shoehorned
awkwardly into Jeanine Tesori's music, which itself too often sounds like
recitatif or the lead-in to songs, determinedly resisting the temptation
to burst into actual melody.
of magical realism that has Caroline's washing machine and radio take
human form to sing to her, along with a singing moon, seems a little too
twee for a show of this seriousness and depth, and the only other
performer to register is Lauren Ward as the lady of the house, who has an
emotional drama of her own that is more distracting than involving.
The subject matter itself, the insight into a character too often taken for granted in drama just as her counterparts were in reality, and the presence of not only a real star but a powerful singing actress at its centre are what make this production a must-see.
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