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Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Reasons to see: Caroline, Or Change

By Catherine Bowell, Published March 20, 2018

Currently playing at the Hampstead Theatre, Caroline, Or Change is a semi-autobiographical musical written by Tony Kushner, based on his own life growing up in the 1960s in Louisiana with a black housemaid working for his Jewish family.

The storyline centres on Noah’s (the family’s only child) and Caroline’s relationship, as he visits her every day in the basement as she works. We gradually learn of the hardship Caroline endures, bringing up her three children alone while she worries for her fourth child’s safety as he fights in Vietnam. We learn how she’s suffered an abusive and failed marriage, and struggles with the financial burden of life as a single parent, barely surviving on the low wage of a maid.

When Noah continually leaves money in his pockets which Caroline finds doing the laundry, she is faced with a moral dilemma when Rose, his stepmother, tells Caroline to keep the child’s money for herself.

Here’s why Caroline, Or Change is one of the must-see musicals of the season.

Musical style

Carole Stennett, T'Shan Williams and Sharon Rose (Radios) in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Carole Stennett, T’Shan Williams and Sharon Rose (Radios) in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

This musical is quite unlike any other! The original plan was for writer Tony Kushner to create an opera, but once he eventually teamed up with composer Jeanine Tesori, their collaboration did produce a musical theatre piece.

Tesori has said that she still sees it as something in-between the two, calling it “a ‘thopera’ because it is its own thing”. What they have created is a unique and varied score made up of a wonderful mix of Motown, soul, blues and Jewish folk music. The quirky, poetical lyrics are often politically charged, yet humorous, and beautifully performed by this talented cast.

Sharon D Clarke, and other strong female performances

The cast of Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The cast of Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

We understand Caroline’s melancholy, anger and heartache through Sharon D Clarke’s outstanding performance. As her pain bubbles beneath the surface of her quiet and pensive exterior, we eventually witness gut-wrenching outbursts through powerful performances from Clarke.

There are also many other outstanding female performances to look out for, particularly from Sharon Rose, Carole Stennett, T’Shan Williams – who plays a radio! – and Abiona Omonua, who plays Caroline’s high-spirited teenage daughter.

Political and historical significance

Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua (Emmie) in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua (Emmie) in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Within this hugely entertaining musical production there are many serious and important themes that Kushner wanted to touch on. One is the civil rights movement and race relations in America in the 1960s, in this case relations between African-American and southern Jews at the time.

The piece is also set during a period of great political and social change, which we see portrayed in the relationship between Caroline and her rebellious daughter Emmie, who we begin to realise is becoming very politically active. And as the storyline includes protests at the time over Confederate statues in America, the issues touched upon are still extremely relevant today.

The unusual character list

Me'sha Bryan (The Washing Machine) and Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Me’sha Bryan (The Washing Machine) and Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change (Photo: Alastair Muir)

When have you ever seen a musical in which the list of characters includes a singing washing machine and dryer, a bus, a radio and the moon?!

These wonderfully inventive characters are definitely a highlight of this production, and are integral to us understanding Caroline’s emotions and thought processes throughout the story. Keep an eye out for the glamourous costume changes of the “radio” and the gorgeous washing machine’s bubble dress!

Caroline, Or Change is running at Hampstead Theatre until 21 April, so don’t miss out on this superb production! Tickets can be booked through the Hampstead Theatre website.

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caroline or change Hampstead Theatre sharon d clarke tony kushner