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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Caroline, Or Change
Playhouse Theatre Winter 2018 -

An 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.

Kushner's play 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.

Ten 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.

(The 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.)

The 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 character.

The 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 seen here.

The play 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.

What 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.

It's all 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.

That big 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 children.

But 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.

A touch 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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Caroline Or Change - Playhouse Theatre 2018