Bops, Bubbles & Blues: A Review of Caroline, or Change

Tuesday saw the lift off of Playhouse Theatre’s show Caroline, or Change directed by Michael Longhurst. The musical fronted by Sharon D Clarke who is best known for playing Killer Queen in We Will Rock You and Oda Mae Brown in Ghost the Musical, was filled with heart, soul and blues. Set in Louisiana during the early 60’s, we meet Caroline Thibodeaux, a house maid working for a middle class Jewish family called the Gellmans. Noah, the youngest in the family, has taken a shine to Caroline’s strong no bullshit attitude, forming a unlikely friendship over cigarettes. Dealing with the recent death of his mother who passed away from cancer, Noah struggles to connect with both his father Stuart and his step mother Rose, who happened to be his late mothers best friend.

Primarily set in the sweltering basement at the Gellman’s residence, Caroline cleans and washes clothes daily. Rose is adamant of giving her a raise but simply can’t afford to, offering her some home cooked food as a gift for Caroline to share with her kids to which Caroline kindly declines. Frequently finding nickels, dimes and quarters in Noah’s pockets whilst doing the washing, Rose tells Noah to stop leaving change in his pockets and from now on if Caroline finds any change she can keep it. Following the dismantle of a confederate soldier statue at the courthouse and the sudden announcement of the shocking death of President John F. Kennedy, a debate takes place during the Chanukah at the Gellman’s between Mr. Spotnick, Rose’s father and Emmie, Caroline’s daughter. His racial commentary on rednecks and African-Americans causes an argument to erupt which see Caroline jump to the defense of Mr. Spotnick, telling Emmie she is wrong for speaking to white people in that way.

caroline, or change
Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre London
caroline, or change
Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre London

Attempting to teach Noah the value of money and a life lesson, Mr. Spotnick gives him $20. Without paying attention, Noah mistakenly leaves the money in his trouser pocket when he puts his clothes to wash. Caroline finds the money and keeps it to herself as previously instructed to by Rose. The next day when Noah realises he doesn’t have the money, he rushes home after school, questioning Caroline on whether or not she’s come across it. She tells him she found the $20 and is keeping it. This leads to an argument which sees a exchange of racial dialogue between the two. Caroline returns the money and walks out ultimately quitting her job as the house maid. After not returning for three days, she realises that the money birthed her down a path of greed and hatefulness and asks God to forgive her and free her from her sins and demons. After returning to work several days later, she reignites her friendship with Noah and continues working for the Gellman’s.

From beginning to end, the growing but complex relationship between Noah and Caroline is filled with the themes of love and emptiness. Noah, who is seeking love from someone he can no longer attain it from and Caroline who is reminiscing about her ex-lover who was abusive as well as hopes for a better lifestyle both share a desire for something they aren’t accessible to. Upon falling in love with Caroline and Noah, we are introduced to several minor characters who powerfully impact her journey throughout the play. One of the characters that stood out to me the most was the Supreme-styled trio known as ‘The Radio’. You could feel every harmony and melody sung from these three ladies, who in addition to Caroline brought the house down. Their presence was definitely felt. All the other characters featured including The Washing Machine, The Dryer, The Moon, Grandma & Grandpa Gellman and Caroline’s children Joe, Jackie and Emmie, all provided uptempo bops that kept coming and coming, creating a blood pumping rhythm and blues vibe all round.

caroline, or change
Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre London
Caroline, or Change – Playhouse Theatre London

My only criticism was the occasional use of the word ‘negro’. Understandably, the play is set in a time where the usage of the word was normal due to the civil rights movement and the racial tension. Still, it made me uncomfortable hearing it several times during the show. The one scene in particular where I felt the most uneasy was the scene between Noah and Caroline which saw several drops of racial insults exchanged between the two. It was clear from the start that Sharon D Clarke was born to play this role. She plays this role so divinely, openly inviting the audience into the struggles many black women faced in the 1960’s. The passion and pain felt throughout her performance filled the room with emotion and it’s safe to admit this superb revival of Tony Kushner’s play is rightfully earning all the ‘critical acclaim’ it deserves.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Caroline, or Change will be running at Playhouse Theatre London until 9th April 2019. You can purchase your tickets HERE.

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