Before we get into this, let’s contextualise the surroundings. Because y’all know I love the experience as a whole. So, first off: the Hampstead Theatre is a cute li’l theatre with real comfy seats and it has a lovely atmosphere (plus if you’re a gin buff, they have a specific gin menu. I’m not about gin at all, but the offerings looked good even to me). If you’ve never been, do yourself a favour and please go.
Right now, show time (no pun intended, but I’ll happily take it). Quick summary: Caroline, Or Change takes us into the world of 1960s’ Louisiana in the house of the Gellmans. We see a lot of the show through the eyes of Noah Gellman, a young boy whose mother has died and whose father has remarried and is too busy absorbed in his clarinet to pay proper attention to his son. Caroline Thibodeaux is the Gellman’s maid: adored by Noah yet only earning $30 a month and still somehow managing to take care of her four children. When Noah’s stepmother has the idea to teach him about leaving change in his pocket by allowing Caroline to keep any change she finds, tensions within the house rise.
Tony Kushner clearly knows how to present the Plight of the Marginalised. Last year saw the revival of Angels in America, a self-described gay fantasia, and Caroline deals with that marginalisation again. The show explores a wide range of experiences: African-American, Jewish-American, Black identity, socioeconomic standing – and even dealing with such serious topics, it manages to retain its lightness. Kushner handles his subject matter with sensitivity and what feels like appropriate anger; and Jeanine Tesori‘s music brings Kushner’s book to bouncy, emotional, fulfilling life.
The vocals in this show are unreal. Seriously, I was in awe for the 130 minutes (interval not included) I was sitting there. The whole cast is mesmerising; every single one of them has this amazing stage magnetism that makes it nigh on impossible to look away.
My heart broke for Rose, Noah’s stepmother, played by Lauren Ward, on her mission to properly involve herself in the Gellmans’ lives. The show could have easily been about Rose instead of Caroline; she has her own very palpable issues. She’s in a tough position, having left her New York City life behind to marry her best friend’s widow and settle down in the South to raise a child who doesn’t see her as his mother.
Speaking of! The kids in it are mighty talented: on the night I went, Noah was played Charlie Gallacher and Caroline’s two sons, Jackie and Joe, were played by Kenyah Sandy and David Dube respectively. Gallacher is an adorable little bundle of energy who carries the emotion of dealing with his mother’s death extremely well; and the first thing I thought to myself when Sandy and Dube first stepped out on to the stage was, “My dear soul; these kids are SO cool”, an assumption that was strengthened when Sandy pulled a double backflip out of his pocket.
Caroline’s family is completed by Abiona Omonua playing her spirited daughter, Emmie and Naana Agyei-Ampadu playing Caroline’s friend and neighbour Dotty. Dotty and Caroline’s back-and-forth, up-and-down friendship is such a delight to watch: funny and honest and relatable. Emmie made me so happy; Omonua portrays the role with a kind of pride and comfort in her skin that I never had when I was younger. And that gave me something I still don’t quite know how to describe, but whatever it is, I am so thankful for it.
Kushner clearly has an affinity for the surreal and borderline bizarre, giving voices to the things Caroline spends most of her day with: the washing machine (Me’sha Bryan), the electric dryer (Ako Mitchell), and the radio (Sharon Rose, Carole Stennett and T’Shan Williams). I fell in love with Fly Davis’ costume design for the appliances. Davis adorns Bryan in a plastic-seeming dress covered in spherical “bubbles” – tres nouveau couture; Mitchell in a brown jumpsuit accessorised with red-hot wiring elements; and the radio trio in a procession of increasingly glamorous matching dresses a la The Supremes, topped with antenna-inspired headdresses. Guys, I was living.
At the centre of this all is Sharon D. Clarke playing Caroline: an absolute vocal powerhouse with emotional delivery that punches you right in the soul. Clarke commands that stage whether she’s belting her heart out or standing in silence. There is something so powerful about her; so professional yet so raw. Now, y’all, I don’t cry easily and I can’t remember the last time I cried at the theatre – I’m not sure I ever have – but Caroline brought me REAL close. I’m talking literal wet eyes on at least three separate occasions. I don’t think I can sum up in words how blown away I was by this show. As with any other show, I had my niggles but I kind of don’t want to let those ruin the experience of this one, so this time, I’m going to let sleeping dogs lie.
Do you want to see Caroline, Or Change? If you like strong vocal performances; if you live for catchy music; if you are prepared to go on that emotional journey, then the answer is a resounding yes. It’s currently sold out but if you can get your hands on a ticket, hold on to it like you’re Charlie Bucket.
Caroline, Or Change is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 21 April
Photo: Alastair Muir