Caroline, Or Change at the Playhouse Theatre: A ‘Biblical’ Performance from Sharon D. Clarke
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Tony Kushner’s musical set in Louisiana and led by the indomitable Sharon D. Clarke.
There is something rather special in seeing three women come on stage with antennae on their heads alongside another actress playing a washing machine. The costume for this second household appliance is a mass of glued bubbles glued onto a white suit. Yet this is how Caroline, or Change begins, with the titular character working in the basement of the Gellmans household. With the repeated emphasis on the subterranean space of the household, the tortuous heat of the washing machine and dryer, and lyrics such as ‘sunk in the mud and the marsh and the mire, / down with the snakes and the snails and the braken’, from the opening Caroline, or Change positions itself as a tale of descent. At first physical and later moral, Caroline’s descent offers a startling frame for this powerful show of music, family and personal suffering that rises to great heights.
With book and lyric by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, and following two critically acclaimed runs at Chichester and then the Hampstead Theatre, Caroline, or Change depicts the troubled life of Caroline (Sharon D. Clarke). Divorced with three children and now aged thirty-nine, Caroline had hoped to have achieved more in her life by this point. With bills to pay and children to look after, Caroline is provided with an opportunity to increase her income when Rose Gellman (Lauren Ward) states that she can have all the change she finds in step-son Noah’s pockets. What follows is not only Caroline’s debate against herself – who sees it as taking money from a baby but who also understands the improved life the extra change can provide for her children – but also her situation is placed within the wider historical shifts of 1963 Louisiana and, more widely, America.
Clarke puts in a monumental performance: though the tough façade rarely cracks, she brings a motherly warmth to the role that otherwise emphasises her status as a survivor of an abusive husband, of a political and social system that registers her as inferior, and of life itself. Clarke’s rendition of ‘Lot’s Wife’ alone is worthy of a standing ovation in its biblical strength and furor.
Yet, almost completely sung through, the ensemble cast of Caroline, or Change is impeccable. As the washing machine Me’sha Bryan offered a clean performance with some impressive vocals that complimented the exquisite voices of the three radio sisters (Keisha Amponsa Banson, Dujonna Gift-Simms and Tanisha Spring). Young Aaron Gelkoff as Noah was adorable but with perfect diction, and Lauren Ward’s frustrated care as step-mother Rose was touching. Also superb were David Dube Kenyah Sandy and Abiona Omonua as Caroline’s kids, with Omonua especially deserving praise as Emmie.
A play about music and family, the contrasts between the Gellman family and that of Caroline are not as explicit as social class would suggest. The play is full of troubled parent:child relationships – Caroline and Emmie, Noah and Rose, Rose and her father – that mostly are reconciled as the characters come to realise the harsh realities of life. Fly Davis’ design and Jack Knowles’ lighting also deserve praise. The entire production feels tightly helmed by director Michael Longhurst, if at points the narrative is somewhat slow, though this feels more an issue of being sung through. That said, Caroline, or Change is a moving and exquisitely-performed production that is very deserving of its recent critical success. The chthonic basement of the Gellman house may be an overheated jail for Caroline, but seeing her story played out by Clarke at the Playhouse Theatre offers only ascendance to one of the best performances of the West End.
Caroline, or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre until the 6thApril, 2019.
Production and feature photograph by Helen Maybanks.