Caroline, Or Change ★★★★★

This thrilling musical, drawing on the Deep South Jewish childhood of writer Tony Kushner to tell its tale of changing times in 60s America, is even more powerful in its new London home

Since I first saw Caroline, Or Change at its 2017 premiere at Chichester Festival Theatre, it has enjoyed a triumphant transfer to Hampstead Theatre and now opens in London’s West End. Some roles have been recast for the Playhouse Theatre with equally talented performers. If possible, it packs an even more powerful punch on this compact stage, especially with the current marked divisions in society giving it, sadly, a new topicality. Many of my thoughts about the show’s brilliance remain the same, but I have been surprised at how it deeply it has affected me as the times go on changing.

Perhaps this has something to do with Jewish guilt, which propels so many of us. Like our childhoods, it's a rich seam to mine and Tony Kushner, with composer Jeanine Tesori, draws on both to fashion this magnificent musical evocation of a time of social change in America, which 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 two families in the Deep South – the prosperous Jewish Gellman family and the struggling Thibodeauxs, whose single parent matriarch is the Gellmans’ black maid, the eponymous Caroline.

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Kushner does not put his Jewish family centre-stage. That is reserved for Caroline (breathtaking Sharon D Clarke**, whose voice fills and thrills the theatre) and the dingy basement laundry room in which she spends her days toiling. We see the family above stairs, from her point of view. On Fly Davis’s simple, clever set (which works well in this intimate theatre, where it feels almost claustrophobic) they may look down on her, but the laundry is the focal point on which a beneficent woman in the moon (Angela Caesar) beams. It is also where young Noah Gellman, the eight-year-old traumatised by his mother's death, comes to seek comfort with his 'stepmother' of choice, rejecting his father's new wife, New Yorker Rose (Lauren Ward, sympathetic in her isolation).

Noah loves the ritual of lighting the one daily cigarette Caroline allows herself – for reasons of cost not health. For she sweats all day for low wages (cue the Jewish guilt), a single mother of four, separated from an abusive husband. Not that she envelops Noah in a warm expansive embrace. On the contrary. Spiky Caroline is short with him and, it seems, it’s this very reality check that draws the bereaved boy, rather than his well-meaning stepmother’s efforts at maternal warmth. Their relationship is central to the show, so the role of Noah is quite an ask of such a young performer. On press night pitch-perfect Aaron Gelkoff, who shares the role with Jack Meredith and Isaac Forward, carried it off with aplomb. His father Stuart (convincing Alastair Brookshaw), a talented clarinettist, has perhaps remarried too soon. Adequate neither as husband nor father, he retreats into his music.

Kushner gives change multiple meanings. Young Noah has a habit of carelessly leaving small change in his pockets. So ostensibly to teach him 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. But Noah deliberately leaves coins to add to this scant bonus. The action takes place not just at a time of change in 1960s America but, specifically, in the run up to Chanukah in late November 1963. So news of the assassination of President Kennedy comes through as the Gellmans prepare for the festival and in their city, Lake Charles Louisiana, a statue of a confederate soldier is overturned, prefiguring the pulling down of such statues in recent times and symbolising the push for equal rights for Americans of colour.

This set-up makes for an absorbing drama, but there's so much more in director Michael Longhurst’s urgent, luminous production. Above all how Jeanine Tesori's stunning through-sung score, which ranges from blues to klezmer, is brilliantly realised by MD Nigel Lilley’s 11-strong orchestra (six on strings, including guitars, and two on wind and woodwind). There are 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), and the radio embodied by a terrific three-girl group channelling The Supremes (Keisha Amponsa Banson, Dujonna Gift-Simms, Tanisha Spring).

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Noah’s expansive grandparents, Sue Kelvin’s big-voiced, big-hearted Grandma Gellman, well matched by Vincent Pirillo’s Grandpa, add authentic Yiddishe warmth and fun, especially as they throw themselves into the merry chasidic dancing around the Chanukah dinner table, authentically choreographed by Ann Yee.

Then 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 (tremendous Abiona Omonua) goes head to head with Rose’s father (bristling Teddy Kempner); and Noah gets a huge $20 bill as Chanukah geld (money) to leave in his pocket.

The guilty pleasure of this many-layered musical is all the richer for being tempered by its fierce demands to listen to all the narratives it has to tell and their relevance to our own fast changing times.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Helen Maybanks

Caroline, Or Change runs until Saturday 6 April. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). From £20*. Playhouse Theatre, WC2N 5DE. 084 4871 7631.

*A limited number of £5 tickets are available to ages 16-25 on the day of performance and in person from the Playhouse Theatre box office. There is also an offer on that allows anyone named Caroline a free ticket when also purchasing another paying ticket. ‘Carolines Go Free’ is an exclusive offer available via the box office in person or by phone.

**Note that Sharon D Clarke will not be appearing on Monday evenings 7 Jan to 1 Mar.

Listen to our interview with two of the stars on JR OutLoud.