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Caroline, or Change, Hampstead Theatre, review: ‘Laughter, lyricism, and lashings of humanity in melancholy musical’

PUBLISHED: 12:15 21 March 2018

Me'sha Bryan (The Washing Machine) and Sharon D Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux) in Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre by Alastair Muir

Me'sha Bryan (The Washing Machine) and Sharon D Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux) in Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre by Alastair Muir

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Sharon D Clarke’s formidable Caroline inhabits a basement laundry that she compares to hell or being underwater. Trudging between washer and dryer, she wonders how she wound up so tired and downtrodden at 39

Sharon D. Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux) in Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre by Alastair MuirSharon D. Clarke (Caroline Thibodeaux) in Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre by Alastair Muir

The inspiration for this soulful, melancholy musical of poverty and oppression sprang from Tony ‘Angels in America’ Kushner’s Louisiana childhood.

Back in the 60s, his progressive Jewish household had a poorly-paid black maid to clean and launder for them.

Sharon D Clarke’s formidable Caroline inhabits a basement laundry that she compares to hell or being underwater. Trudging between washer and dryer, she wonders how she wound up so tired and downtrodden at 39.

A single mum to four kids – one in Vietnam – she has to choose whether to pay rent or feed them well. Despite Caroline’s brusqueness, nine year old Noah – grieving for his dead mother – finds solace in their daily sharing of a cigarette.

Kushner leavens the mix with laughter, lyricism, and lashings of humanity – even for Noah’s grieving emotionally unavailable father and passive aggressive Stepmom Rose.

Jeanine Tesori’s sung-through score is infused with the blues and gospel of the Southern States, and the more upbeat soul and pop that literally comes out of the radio. Here, inanimate objects like the washing machine come to life as an empathetic bubble-clad siren.

The bass-voiced dryer sings of generations of slavery, while a harmonising trio step out of the wireless like The Supremes. Even the moon, suspended on a silver cradle, has a melodic take on Caroline’s existential despair.

When the family celebrate Hanukkah, the klezmer in the living room fuses with the blues in the kitchen as the black maids flip latkes; in a kind of musical multiculturalism. Meanwhile, Rose’s father tells Caroline’s feisty daughter Emmie to learn from the Jews; that peaceful protest is pointless. The title refers to both social change, the Civil Rights movement, JFK’s assassination and the disappearance of a Confederate statue all feature, and a deal that Caroline can keep whatever loose change she finds in Noah’s pockets.

Clarke’s stony-face registers the sadness, humiliation, bruised pride then joy at giving her kids a few pennies to spend at the dime store. A nasty stand-off when Noah and Caroline trade racial slurs ends with a barnstorming finale when Clarke sings an anguished lament to her God. Michael Longhurst’s slow burning, heartfelt production also features Abiona Omonua’s memorable Emmie, who embodies a spirited protest against injustice.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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