Individual reactions to the same show can vary wildly, which is why a single performance can draw a range of different ratings from the critics. When the same production receives both 2 and 4-star reviews your only hope is to align yourself with the writer who most often reflects your taste and book (or not) accordingly. But it is a very different conundrum when a show has received nothing by 5-star acclaim and yet, despite an equally enthusiastic ovation in the room, you’re left feeling cold, or at least less than rapturous about what you have just seen. The top rating is perhaps awarded a little too easily these days, but for an audience it gives rise to a particular set of expectations about how great the show will be and how you will feel about seeing it, expectations that sometimes only end in disappointment.
It is always a strange and disconcerting experience to feel out of kilter with an entire room of enthusiastic fans, when people are giving raucous standing ovations yet you remain firmly seated or clap enthusiastically at every available opportunity while your own hands remain undisturbed in your lap until the final bows. “What am I missing” you wonder as the entire room responds to an excitement you just don’t feel, “how is this failing to connect with me and why don’t I get it”? Well, it is a perfectly normal and legitimate reaction to an art-form predominantly based on interpretation and taste, that sometimes however much you mentally appreciate its technical skill, moments of engagement, over-arching themes and excellent performances, the expected emotional impact never comes – it’s just not for you.
Caroline or Change has absolutely everything going for it, a double transfer showered in stars at every turn. It opened at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017 before a run at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, and now this production makes its way to the West End for a run at the Playhouse Theatre. And that’s not all, it’s written by Tony Kushner whose ‘gay fantasia’ Angels in America was revived to powerful effect at the National last year by Marianne Elliott before heading for Broadway last Spring, plus Caroline or Change stars the sensational Sharon D. Clarke who could break your heart singing the phonebook.
Even the themes of race equality, working class poverty and societal change set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination evoke one of the most interesting periods of twentieth-century history. All the building blocks are there for what should be an amazing night, and yet the magic doesn’t come, you feel like the only person in the room who has missed the boat.
With such a well-rehearsed show, despite its new location in the Playhouse, the fact that Caroline or Change is still in previews isn’t the issue, it feels slick, the Company at ease with the music and each other, the show running like a well-oiled machine. So, there must be something in the show itself, in its combined domestic drudgery and social change storyline, and the mixture of pointed political commentary with moments of metaphysical silliness that just doesn’t quite tick the boxes.
Kushner likes this approach and Angels in America, with its frequent dreamlike fantasies and visions of demonic-looking angels crashing through Prior Walter’s ceiling, is a delight, one you can accept wholeheartedly in the spirit of the show. Yet here, the personified domestic appliances that sing to or frighten Caroline are a flight of fancy too far, a touch of children’s television that extends to a talking bus and a woman in the moon who oversees events. Maybe it’s just fun, a bit of whimsy to lighten the mood, but it never quite connects or makes sense. It feels like a dramatic device to reflect Caroline’s thoughts which could have been achieved a hundred more effective ways.
There are lots of musicals about this era that successfully combine the individual and the political, telling an entertaining story with great music while subtly emphasising the social barriers still to be overcome. So maybe that is the problem, if you have seen and loved Hairspray, Dreamgirls or even the songs from Bombshell the fictional Marilyn Monroe musical from Smash, then perhaps a chatty washing machine and a scary tumble dryer just don’t feel as effective in relaying the context of 1960s America and particularly the position of a black working-class women with a family to support
The strangeness of this reaction is compounded by the fact that when Caroline or Change works, it works really well with plenty of fascinating characters with things to say in unusual and meaningful ways. Three contrasting experiences are presented through the narrative; first the upper middle-class lifestyle of the Gellmans, a Jewish family that Caroline works for and the various domestic problems they face as a blended group with different personalities and expectations; second, we observe the politicisation of Caroline’s neighbourhood and particularly her own children who are swept-up in the fight for race equality spreading across Louisiana; and finally we are taken into Caroline’s interior world, broaching the gap between these other experiences as she tries to keep her head down and avoid the change that ripples through the other stories.
The difficulties of single motherhood becomes a major theme as both Caroline and new step-mother Rose Gellman are forced into semi-maternal roles through the circumstances of their lives. Wishing to teach her step-son Noah the value of money, Rose becomes the driving force of the show as she veers between trying to earn his affection while providing the kind of structure and recognition of consequences he has been lacking. Crucially, Rose’s own overbearing father and all but absent new husband create considerable pressure on her to take control without any of the personal support she needs to transition to effective stepmother. This is mirrored in Caroline’s own relationship with the boy that is difficult for the most part but masks a mutual affection that neither seems to fully recognise. And it exists in the distant relationship she has with her own children where, at work for most of the day, her knowledge of them is limited, as though they have grown-up without her noticing.
This leads neatly into the activist community life that Caroline purposefully avoids. A Confederate statue has been stolen as the show opens leading to a half-hearted whodunnit strand that runs through the story, but the assassination of JFK and the race riots spreading through the South become a much more meaningful backdrop, marking-out a period of national instability and change that is mirrored in Caroline’s own domestic disputes. This works really well, offering the characters a different kind of future – not necessarily a better one – while tapping into the Kennedy mythology of a President prevented from achieving the greatness he aspired to.
There is fear about the nature of progress which excites Caroline’s daughter Emmie and friend Dotty, but worries a protagonist used to the idea that staying quiet and invisible is the only way to survive. In Kushner’s story this is one of the strongest elements, a key moment between past and future reflected in Jeanine Tesori’s soulful music including a collections of songs titled ‘Moon Change’ in which Caroline and Dotty argue about local events and hear of Kennedy’s death, as the personal and political, historical and day-to-day collide, making the inanity of a talking washing machine all the harder to reconcile.
Finally, it is Caroline’s inner perspective from which we observe most of the show’s events, and here this production plays its trump-card, the wonderful Sharon D. Clarke in the leading role. Everything you need to understand or know about the character is right there in Clarke’s performance, the years of being ground down by a society that has labelled her as a second-class citizen because of her skin colour, the effect of years of poverty and the resignation of a single mother who needs to keep her job in order to provide for her family. Clarke too balances Caroline’s continual turmoil, a desire to keep her place and not to rock the boat with a pent-up frustration that feels ready to explode at any time – abused once by the husband she adored and then continually broken-down by the structures of her confined world trapped in a basement day-in, day-out, her only hope to win a better future for her family.
Clarke shines in numbers including the spectacular Underwater, her powerful and emotive voice lifting the auditorium as the audience feels deeply for Caroline. In those moments you see that all those 5-star reviews were more for the leading lady than for the show itself, because perhaps the real issue is that casting a star of Clarke’s calibre means you don’t need an animated tumble dryer or bus to tell you how Caroline feels because we already know, it’s right there in Clarke’s whole demeanour and in every quiver of her voice, she is luminous.
The secondary characters have plenty of interesting texture, especially Lauren Ward as the lonely beleaguered stepmother trying to do the right thing with almost no support from her family. A show-stealing Charlie Gallacher (one of two alternating Noahs) brings all the difficulty of his situation to the fore, developing a charming rapport with Caroline while hitting all the right humorous notes in every scene, and revealing a boy who is still coming to terms with his grief. There is perhaps not quite enough content for Emmie, Caroline’s eldest daughter who becomes a campaigner, eager for a new future to start, but Abiona Omonua is a delight in the role with a fresh and eager approach that enlivens every song she performs.
Caroline or Change has a lot going for it and three potentially interesting plot lines that should fully engage, yet it never quite unites as tidily and explosively as it promises to do, the wackier aspects serving to alienate rather than enhance the rest of the story. Lots of people have loved and will love this, and this high calibre production is certainly ready for its press night later in the month, but something just didn’t connect within the show’s structure. It may not happen with this particular show but it will somewhere sometime; if you are at a production that has been covered in praise, know that its fine to disagree, even if it gets a full standing ovation and the whole of the Internet tells you you’re wrong, it’s still ok to say, “this wasn’t for me”.