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Review: Caroline, Or Change, at Hampstead Theatre

Musical theatre production packs an emotional punch as Sharon D Clarke delivers a moving portrayal of a strong woman trapped in a life of drudgery

22 March, 2018 — By Catherine Usher

Sharon D Clarke and Lauren Ward in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Alastair Muir

TRAPPED in a life of drudgery and despair in 1963 Louisiana, grumpy, despondent Caroline Thibodeaux isn’t your typical star of the show, just as Caroline, Or Change isn’t your typical musical theatre performance.

Quite early on in proceedings, eight-year-old Noah Gellman, the son in the family in which Caroline is employed, describes her as “stronger than my dad”. This insight sets the tone for the entire tale – although Caroline is burdened, she has an inner courage that serves her well.

The way in which the mundane elements of her daily existence are brought to life in the basement laundry room is enchanting. Me’Sha Bryan is a delightfully bubbly Washing Machine, the trio of Radio girls (T’Shan Williams, Sharon Rose and Carole Stennett) are sassy and glamorous and Ako Mitchell as The Dryer is rudeness personified. Regarded as devilish by Caroline, there’s a clear suggestion of corruption, which Mitchell emphasises with his brilliantly flirty performance.

Carole Stennett (Radio 3), T’Shan Williams (Radio 1) and Sharon Rose (Radio 2) in Caroline, or Change

In the title role, Sharon D Clarke delivers a moving, emotional and convincing portrayal of a strong woman, chipped away at by hardship – Caroline’s strength is reflected in Clarke’s incredible vocals.

Clarke’s talents are matched by a fantastic supporting cast, particularly Abiona Omonua as Caroline’s idealistic daughter Emmie and Charlie Gallacher as young Noah.

Joined by David Dube as Joe Thibodeaux and Kenyah Sandy as his brother Jackie, the three child actors are unbelievably confident, and indeed they should be with such obvious talent. One soon forgets that Gallacher is a child, such is his powerful, self-assured performance.

As well as packing an emotional punch, the show – which is almost entirely singing throughout – makes an impact because the music is both witty and wonderfully written by Tony Kushner. Plus the innovative storyline, with its unpredictable elements of brashness and subtlety, combine to create a triumph.

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