REVIEW: Caroline, Or Change, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until June 3.

Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua - Photo by Marc Brenner
Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua - Photo by Marc Brenner
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A singing washing machine? A singing radio? You might very well spend the first 20 minutes wondering what on earth you are watching.

But then slowly, very surely, Caroline, Or Change starts to exert its charm – a very considerable charm that will leave you convinced you’ve watched a rare and rather wonderful gem by the end of it all.

If the Minerva is about taking us to very different places we’d never expect to go (and yes, it should be), then this is a production which fits the bill – and then some. Rich, fresh, vibrant, it is also challenging, sparky and moving in equal measure, directed with panache by Michael Longhurst and delivered by a cast firing on all cylinders.

At the end of the first half, there is a simply delightful interplay between the children – Charlie Gallacher, James Gava, Josiah Choto and Abiona Omonua – so natural and so rhythmic that it would pretty well justify the ticket price on its own – quite apart from all the other pleasures by now in full flow.

It’s 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux – played with commanding stillness by Sharon D Clarke – is an African American maid earning thirty dollars a week working for the Jewish Gellman family.

The object of eight-year-old Noah’s attentions, she is also the object of the misplaced, well-meaning efforts of Noah’s step mum to slip her some change – an affront to Caroline’s dignity as she tries to cling on to pride.

But this is a time of change of a vaster kind. Pressure for civil right is growing; Kennedy flickers brightly before his assassination; and Caroline’s daughter – Abiona Omonua as Emmie in probably the night’s star turn – is from a generation demanding much, much more.

With book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, the show starts to romp along, mixing blues, soul, Motown, classical music and Jewish folk songs in a winning mix, with only the more Sondheim-y numbers grating – purely a matter of taste, of course.

The story itself is slight, but its import is huge as Caroline is buffeted by the change all around her. Will she finally react? Clarke’s performance is measured but leaves us in no doubt as to the depth of her feelings as the world threatens to run away from her.

Meanwhile, in the background, the tenderest of stories is being played out quite beautifully between a stepmother perhaps over eager to please and a stepson struggling to cope with his grief. Charlie Gallacher shows remarkable stage presence and self-possession as the boy; Lauren Ward as Rose gives us a brittleness that shows that she’s struggling too.

Put it altogether, and with 40 Years On presumably still misfiring in the main-house, this is the night the 2017 summer season comes alive.

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