The Theatreguide.London Review
Playhouse Theatre Winter 2018 -
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.
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.
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 character.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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