Last night was one of firsts. The Hampstead Theatre gave me a singing washing machine, a purring dryer, a trio of serenading radios and yes, a harmonising bus. And as I’m not much of a soap-opera fan, I had never heard of Sharon D. Clarke, so this was my first evening in her company. What a memorable first date that was! Are you thinking this all sounds a bit daft? Don’t. It works. And that’s thanks to the wizard of the musical world, lyricist Tony Kushner, and musical virtuoso Jeanine Tesori. They breathe rhythmic life into these singing “objects” in their mesmerising production by the name of Caroline, or Change.
It’s my third outing with Kushner, mind. I first witnessed his genius in the film Angels in America and followed that up with the utterly brilliant seven hour on-stage version at the National Theatre last year. And just as Angels had ghosts and angels (duh!), so Caroline, or Change has the moon serenading us from above, waxing and waning throughout the evening.
You may think I’m losing the plot now, but I’m not. Here it is. Welcome to Lake Charles in the hot and clammy state of Louisiana. It’s 1963 and JFK has just been shot. A Confederate statue has been torn down, and its head is missing.
Meet Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid who works in the basement of the Gellman household. Thankfully, she has a collection of singing appliances to keep her company in this sweltering, subterranean world. Washing Machine (Me’sha Bryan) is soapy, bubbly and ditzy, just as you would expect. Dryer (Ako Mitchell) is seductive and tormenting (“the Devil made the dryer, everything else God made.”) The three radios sashay on and off the stage all evening, Supreme-like.
Caroline is visited by eight-year old Noah Gellman (Aaron Gelkoff). She’s gruff with him and rebuffs his attention, but secretly allows him to light one cigarette a day for her. Stuart Gellman (Alastair Brookshaw) is a clarinet player, a dull man who is about as wet as his water-logged environs. Noah’s mother died of lung cancer, and his father has recently married a woman Noah despises, Rose (Lauren Ward). She’s a New Yorker who misses her native Hudson River, and she’s desperate to make friends with Caroline and with Noah.
Caroline wishes she would die. She’s living in purgatory, trapped in the basement during the day and with three children to feed. Her ex-husband beat her senseless once upon a time, and that was the end of the love affair. Her 16-year-old daughter Emmie is a Martin Luther King supporter, Civil Rights activist, and as we later find out, partially responsible for the disappearance of the soldier statue.
Rose Gellman suggests Caroline keep all of Noah’s loose change which he carelessly leaves in his pockets. It’s well-meaning but condescending, as she won’t give Caroline the raise she needs. Caroline is torn between stealing from a child and having to feed her children.
I could wax lyrical about Sharon D. Clarke during this whole review, and leave room for nothing else. She’s fierce, terrifyingly muted at moments, then like a caterpillar to a butterfly, transforms into an operatic queen. She’s a total, bewitching joy to watch.
Caroline, or Change is a beautiful mish-mash of blues, Motown, spirituals, classical music and Jewish folk music set to a background of crooning frogs and clicking cicadas. I’m told by my companion, the cellist Anne Waddington, that there are echoes of Aaron Copland. Did I mention the exceptional live orchestra and the thunderous standing ovation? I’ve already booked my encore.
Caroline or Change is on at the Hampstead Theatre until 21 April. Tickets from £10-£37. What are you waiting for?