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‘Caroline, or Change’ at London’s Hampstead Theatre is an intimate masterpiece – review

The musical from 'Angels in America' writer Tony Kushner returns to the capital.

By Will Stroude

It sounds like the basis for a perky, chirpy, upbeat musical: Southern maid toils away doing laundry in the basement until she gets an income boost when the boy of the house leaves loose change in his pockets and his stepmom says she can keep it.

Oh, and the washing machine and tumble dryer sing to her, as does the moon when she’s not basement-bound.

So far so Disney. Except this is a musical from the fevered imagination of Tony Kushner (of Angels In America) fame with a heroine who is mainly as miserable as sin at her lot in life and the washer, the dryer and the moon are delivering hominies and home truths, not delightful ditties.

There are delightful moments (like when Caroline’s daughter and two sons do a song and dance routine) but mostly it’s a show that’s as unusual as its title, with its strange syntax and rouge comma, and wonderful in weird and unexpected ways.

Sharon D. Clarke, a theatre stalwart who’d be a bigger star if she was on Broadway where they celebrate leading ladies more than we tend to over here, is extraordinary as the title character – a maid to a Louisiana family in 1963 who gets no joy from her job or her errant daughter and begrudges the boy upstairs who likes her even though, as she saltily points out, she’s never nice to him.

Change is happening all around her (the tearing down of confederate statues, the assassination of JFK, the civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King) but Caroline feels stuck in a rut and can’t see a way out until the small coins start to mount up.

There are no pat happy endings here though, just a ripple of hope, and Clarke’s big number is a cry of pain that the actress, with her wondrously rich voice, appears to be dredging up from the very bottom of her wounded soul.

It’s a powerhouse performance of the standout song in Jeanine Tesori’s remarkable score, which pastiches and pays homage to a variety of musical styles while Kushner’s plot and lyrics (the show is mostly sung-through) are as fanciful and poetic as anything in Angels.

The supporting cast all shine, the staging is ingenious, the musical itself is an intimate masterpiece that works brilliantly in the relatively small Hampstead Theatre.

You might emerge wondering exactly what you’ve seen or how you’d describe it to friends or why the singing moon has left you with an ear-to-ear grin, but it’s something you’ll never forget.

Rating: 5/5

‘Caroline, or Change’ is at London’s Hampstead Park Theatre until 23 April. For tickets click here.

Words by Simon Button