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Review: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, Playhouse Theatre

Caroline, or ChangeAfter runs at both Chichester Festival Theatre and Hampstead Theatre, Caroline, Or Change has transferred to the West End's Playhouse Theatre.

Written by Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame) and with music by Jeanine Tesori (who also composed Fun Home), it tells the story of 39-year-old Caroline Thibodeaux in Louisiana in 1963.

Caroline, or ChangeThe racial and class tensions are clear throughout - Caroline is a black maid, working her days away in the middle-class Jewish Gellmans' basement. She's poorly paid and has three children at home to support, whilst the family upstairs have money to spare and all mod-cons.

An act that the lady of the house, Rose (Lauren Ward), thinks is a generous gesture of support - to allow Caroline to keep any change she finds in her son's and husband's pockets when doing the washing - turns out to be a severe test for the family-maid relationship, and for Caroline's own conscience.

This is a show set against a tense, revolutionary backdrop, but one that also contains a great deal of joy, humour and sass.

Much of this is thanks to a frankly glorious cast, led by the inimitable, formidable Sharon D. Clarke as Caroline. In a flawless performance she is everything from determined to despairing, showing both strength and weakness, but always vocally phenomenal.

Abiona Omonua imbues Caroline's daughter Emmie with boundless feistiness and an almost panther-like prowling energy. She's unwavering in her belief that the racial divide won't last forever, and the future will be brighter for her and her children.

The child cast on stage for the press night, playing Noah Gellman and Caroline's two younger sons Jackie and Joe, all sparkled in their roles. Noah provides a bridge between upstairs and downstairs for much of the show, enjoying spending time with Caroline even thought she doesn't always give the impression to be glad to see him.

Meanwhile, the musical numbers with Emmie, Jackie and Joe are always a highlight, reflecting the energy and optimism of youth.

And of course shoutouts also go to the household appliances. (Not often you get to write that in a review, but Caroline, Or Change is a rather fantastical creation.) Me'sha Bryan's Washing Machine is bright and bubbly, Ako Mitchell's Dryer suitably devilish, and the trio playing The Radio (Dujonna Gift-Simms, Tanisha Spring and Keisha Amponsa Banson) are soulful and sassy to the max.

I'll admit that I found some of the music a little hard to digest. Whilst several of the numbers are soulful and tuneful, others are rather spiky and angular, making for some slightly strange gear shifts. However the cast undeniably do a fabulous job with it all, making this still a winning night at the theatre.

It's also worth highlighting a couple of commendable accessibility initiatives: £5 day tickets for young people, and 500 tickets allocated to young black people who couldn't otherwise go to the theatre - in partnership with Black Theatre Project. Highly appropriate for a show that highlights issues of equality. (Oh and there are also two for one tickets for people called Caroline.)

Caroline, Or Change at the Playhouse Theatre until 6 April, 2019

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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