Ah, Jewish guilt! It propels so many of us. Like our childhoods, it's a rich seam to mine and Tony Kushner draws on both to fashion this magnificent musical evocation of a time of social change in America he observed first-hand as a small boy. He gives us the microcosm: how change, against the backdrop of Kennedy’s assassination and the civil rights movement, affects a Jewish family in the Deep South.
But Kushner does not put his family centre-stage. That is reserved for the eponymous Caroline (breathtaking Sharon D Clarke), a black maid who spends her days toiling in the basement laundry room. We see the family 'above stairs' from her point of view. They may look down on her on Fly Davis’s simple, clever set, but the laundry is the focal point on which a beneficent woman in the moon (Angela Caesar) beams. And it's where young Noah Gellman (Charlie Gallacher, pitch-perfect on press night), the eight-year-old traumatised by his mother's death, comes to seek some comfort with his 'stepmother' of choice, rejecting his father's new wife, New Yorker Rose (Lauren Ward, sympathetic in her isolation). He loves the ritual of lighting the one daily cigarette she allows herself – for reasons of cost not health. For Caroline sweats all day for low wages (that's where the Jewish guilt kicks in), a single mother of four, separated from an abusive husband.
Kushner gives change a double meaning. Ostensibly to teach young Noah – who carelessly leaves change in his pocket – the value of money, but also to assuage those pangs of guilt, Rose hits on the idea that Caroline herself can pocket any money she finds there. Noah deliberately leaves coins to add to this scant bonus.
This set-up makes for an absorbing drama, but there's so much more here, above all Jeanine Tesori's eclectic score, which ranges from blues to klezmer. There's the gloriously surreal live domestic machines that act as confidants and chorus, Me’sha Bryan’s washing machine, minidress literally bubbly with suds, Ako Mitchell’s smouldering dryer in his red hot element (doubling as soul-singing night bus), the radio embodied by a terrific three-girl group channelling The Supremes (Gloria Onitri, Jennifer Saayeng, Keisha Amponsa Banson).
And just when you’re enjoying the sugary treat of the family Chanukah party complete with candle-lighting and father Stuart’s klezmer clarinet, the difference between Jewish and black outsiders explodes. Caroline and her family wait at table and her fiery, feisty daughter Emmie (blazing Abiona Omonua, tremendous) goes head to head with Rose’s father (bristling Teddy Kempner); and Noah gets a $20 bill as Chanukah geld (money) to leave in his pocket.
Michael Longhurst’s many-layered production is a rich guilty pleasure.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Marc Brenner
Caroline, Or Change runs until Saturday 3 June. 7.45pm, 7pm (11 May only), 2.45pm (Sat & Thu only; plus 24 May). From £21. Chichester Festival Theatre, PO19 6AP. 012 4378 1312. www.cft.org.uk