Caroline, or Change continues at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 3 June.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Chichester Festival Theatre has a new artistic director, Daniel Evans, and though his tenure may have started with a bit of a blip in the revival of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, this inaugural musical more than makes up for it.
In recent years Chichester Festival Theatre has gained a reputation for high quality musical theatre. Evans has chosen well with this extraordinary surrealistic and sung-through piece and shows his determination to maintain that status.
With book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, whose epic Angels in America is currently playing at the National Theatre, and a score from Jeanine Tesori that blends gospel, blues, classical music and Motown – along with klezmer for the Hanukkah party – this is a rich and powerful mix.
Caroline Thibodeaux, divorced and bringing up four children on her own, is a black maid working for her Jewish employers, the Gellmans.
Her working life revolves round the basement laundry room where she talks to the domestic appliances and the radio. These surrealistically morph into life and interact with her.
Designer Fly Davis has humanised them with some witty and imaginative costumes: a bubble-wrapped washing machine, a devilish dryer, and a trio of singers, a la Supremes, complete with antennas on their heads for the radio.
The show is a study of the relationships Caroline has with her family and the Gellmans, particularly with young Noah who is grieving over his dead mother and exhibiting hostility to his new stepmother Rose. He regards the maid as a surrogate mother and longs to join her family. Each shares the other’s sorrow.
At home Caroline clashes with her daughter Emmie, young and aspiring to better things, and goading her mother for her acceptance of her life and not having ambition.
The show’s title incorporates the word change and it takes on many meanings. There are changes that Caroline needs to make in her life. Set in the 1960s, there are the social and political ones going on around her – civil rights, Kennedy’s assassination.
And then there is the loose change that Noah leaves in his trousers for Caroline to find as she launders them. This leads to a ferocious and wounding exchange between them.
Sharon D Clarke delivers a knockout performance as Caroline. Unsmiling, her face is etched with loneliness, sadness and her body frozen with weariness.
Only at the end of Act II does emotion pour out as she begs God to “murder my dreams” and “not allow my sorrow to make evil of me”.
Clarke proves, once again, what a fine actress she is and what a potent voice she has. In ‘1943’ the audience discovers her back story of finding love, marriage and suffering physical abuse from her husband.
The production is full of fine performances. Abiona Omonua, daughter Emmie, shows her sense of comedy in the knockabout and well-choreographed (Ann Yee) number ‘Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw’.
It contrasts later with her passionate argument for non-violent action with Rose’s communist father (the excellent Teddy Kempner).
At the performance I saw Charlie Gallacher (Daniel Luniku is the alternate) played Noah and delivered a most assured performance. His vicious exchanges when he fell out with Caroline truly shocked.
As Rose, Lauren Ward portrays well the character’s sadness at having moved from New York, not fitting in down South and being rejected by her stepson and by Caroline’s non-acceptance of friendship.
Trying to remember my feelings when I saw the original production at the National Theatre 11 years ago, I recall disappointment which I put down to being unprepared for this complex and unusual musical.
Coming to it this time, I fell for it. The show benefits enormously from being performed in the intimacy of Chichester’s Minerva space, directed by Michael Longhurst, where it is possible to grasp the subtle nuances. The show and all its cast clearly deserve the ovation given at the final curtain.