Caroline Thibodeaux is only 39, but her life is already reduced to the basement of the Gellman household in which she is a maid, where the washing machine, dryer and old radio are her only companions. Well, apart from eight-year-old Noah Gellman that is. Noah idolises Caroline, taking every opportunity to spend time with her, even when she treats him with cool indifference or chastises him for leaving his pocket money in his dirty laundry. When Noah’s stepmother Rose insists Caroline start keeping any change she finds, to teach Noah a lesson about money, it brings into sharp focus Caroline’s situation and highlights her moral dilemma: forced to start considering keeping a child’s lost pocket money to help make ends meet for herself and her four children.
Playwright Tony Kushner is best known for his widely acclaimed Angels in America , notable for its highly intimate personal stories set against the backdrop of world changing events. Caroline or Change also carries this particular Kushner trademark: its 1963 and John F Kennedy has just been assassinated, the American Civil Rights movement is growing: it’s clearly a period of great change for America as a whole. And so it is for Caroline: she’s come to this point, 39 and with life looking bleak, when change is in order. The combination of small intimate individual stories and world changing political events just draws each into sharper focus, Caroline’s personal dilemmas reflect the frustration and thirst for change of a nation, whilst the sweeping changes across the country are juxtaposed with how slow progress can be for people on the ground like Caroline, whilst keeping up the hope that change is very much in the air.
Jeanine Tesori’s music is the perfect partner to Kushner’s words, transforming what might seem like bleak subject matter into something fun and heart-warming. It pairs particularly well with one of the most original and fun aspects of the show: the personification of choice inanimate objects, such as the washing machine and dryer that are Caroline’s constant companions as in the basement. Fly Davis’s fantastic costumes help bring them to life, especially the 60s- inspired washing machine (Mesha Bryon) in her extravagant costume of plastic bubbles.
Sharon D Clarke, our titular Caroline, is undoubtedly the star of the show. Her commanding stage presence makes it difficult to look away. And indeed its difficult to want to; she’s amazing as Caroline, effortlessly capturing her despair, but also her quiet dignity. This isn’t to say that the rest of the cast are weak. Quite the opposite: there isn’t a single weak link in this production, with the entire ensemble cast delivering excellent performances.
So many things come together to make Caroline or Change the visual treat that it is. A fantastic musical brought to life by a near perfect production, this is one of the definite ‘must see’ shows of this winter.