Caroline, or Change review – gloriously disruptive

Minerva, Chichester
Sharon D Clarke is extraordinary as the defiant heroine of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s dynamic musical set in 60s America

Political punch, moral intricacy – and a washing machine that bursts into song. Caroline, or Change is one of the most gloriously disruptive, completely distinctive musicals of the past 20 years. Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics have the long reach and weirdness on display at the National in Angels in America. But they have more nuance. Jeanine Tesori’s music is alive with a central domestic drama: Motown and klezmer evoke Caroline, a black maid, and the liberal Jewish household in whose basement she mainly works. But it goes beyond that, conjuring up a history and geography of America, with soul, Christmas carols, blues, Mozartian woodwind. A chain-gang rhythm honours domestic drudgery; how often has that been suggested in a musical?

Michael Longhurst’s first-rate production makes all this apparent. What’s more, Sharon D Clarke gives one of the supreme performances of 2017. “I ain’t no jackdaw ragpick,” she protests to the employer who suggests she take the loose coins she finds in pockets while doing the laundry. But the small change could make a big alteration: she feeds her children on bread flavoured with meat and can’t afford to get their painful teeth fixed. It is 1963, a cusp of change, and Caroline is caught in the cleft stick of resentment and habitual compliance. Clarke’s magnificent voice makes each song mighty. But she is also extraordinary in the way she holds a silence. She rivets as she glowers, swivelling between pain and anger.

The plain uttering of truth is important: as Caroline’s rebellious daughter, Abiona Omonua skids around the stage like a teenager on roller-skates but she speaks up as if she were Toni Morrison. Still, that’s only half of it. The animation of the domestic appliances is terrible and enlivening: like dream in action. Fly Davis’s clever costumes create the washing machine as a transparent, bubble-encrusted garment. The diabolic dryer has a red tube like a blood vessel slung around his neck. And oh, the splendour of the radio – a Supremes-style trio, with lacquered hair and clinging cocktail dresses, dangling a transistor like a handbag.

• Caroline, or Change, is at the Minerva, Chichester, until 3 June


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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