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Caroline, or Change - Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Charlie Gallacher as Noah Gellman, and Sharon D Clarke as Caroline Thibodeaux, in 'Caroline, Or Change'. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

​The thing about the 53 musical numbers in Caroline, Or Change is that, for someone experiencing the show for the first time, like yours truly, it doesn’t feel as though there are 53 musical numbers. The show, in case you were wondering, was 2 hours 40 minutes including a 20-minute interval. As you can imagine, some of the numbers were quite short, moulding into one another. There were only three times that the audience at the performance I attended felt it appropriate to applaud – at the end of the first act, after the eleven o’clock number ‘Lot’s Wife’, and the curtain call. For a fellow theatregoer it felt too long, with some songs morphing into others but retaining a similar theme, such that it was as though several songs were actually just one song that dragged on and on.

It is almost entirely sung through, with perhaps just the odd sentence here and there in spoken form. I wasn’t, I must confess, prepared for this, and part way through the first act, I momentarily nodded off. I wasn’t alone in losing consciousness: there was some consternation in the second half when someone in my row started snoring. My Southern Rail train from London to Chichester arrived on time – I’d left such a comfortable time buffer that I had time for a meal beforehand (the plan was to allow for Southern Rail delays, and then eat somewhere in Chichester after the show, before heading back into London). I plumped for Prezzo, on South Street, and afterwards went into the Minerva Theatre very full indeed, which may well have explained my subsequent lethargy. Not that I’ll be going back to Prezzo in Chichester: the ‘large garlic pizza bread’ was far too dry, such that I had finished my glass of prosecco and a glass of tap water before my main had arrived. The ‘spaghetti with giant meatballs’ was tasty enough, but the restaurant itself was far too hot and stuffy, with only a solitary electric fan blasting hot air around. Not pleasant.

It’s quite an intense musical, though some moments of banality were difficult – no, impossible – to tolerate. Me’sha Bryan plays ‘The Washing Machine’, and a trio play ‘The Radio’ (Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng, Keisha Amponsa Banson). ‘The Dryer’ is played by Ako Mitchell, who will always be ‘Sweaty Eddie’ to me, to borrow a line from the 2009 London Palladium production of Sister Act The Musical, in which Mitchell played Lt Eddie Souther. Mitchell also plays ‘The Bus’, and ‘The Moon’ is played by Angela Caesar. All sing. Yup, the moon sings. Or perhaps it is actually the sun singing, the moon merely reflecting it. Whatever. Caesar sings very well, mind you, but it was beyond ridiculous for me, especially in a show set in the real world, specifically Lake Charles, Louisiana, in late 1963.

Some of the humour, however, is sublime. I loved a quip by Grandma Gellman (Beverley Klein), Grandpa Gellman (Vincent Pirillo) and Mr Stopnick (Teddy Kempner), guests at the dinner table of Stuart Gellman (Alex Gaumond, who gets to be an actor-musician, as his Stuart plays the clarinet, and to a high standard) and his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman (a sublime if slightly sarcastic Lauren Ward). It’s about aspects of the Chanukah festival being celebrated despite not being “in the Torah”, and is probably applicable to most faiths. It’s certainly applicable to Western Christianity – there’s no mention of Christmas cards, Christmas crackers or Christmas trees in the New Testament. Noah, an elementary schoolboy (Charlie Gallacher at this performance, the role is shared with Daniel Luniku) is a further source of wit, seeing things through a child’s perspective.

It’s the title character, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D Clarke), that stands out. To see Caroline just as a domestic servant who does her duties, largely in the basement of the Gellman home, is to fail to properly acknowledge the full scope of the character. Fed up of being fed up, the ‘change’ referred to in the show’s title is inevitable, not just because the title becomes redundant otherwise, but partly because of the civil rights movement, embraced by her daughter Emmie (Abiona Omonua). It’s an interesting mother-daughter relationship, where battle-weary forbearance meets youthful vigour and optimism. And there is a powerhouse performance from Clarke, whether silent or belting, or somewhere in between.

The introduction of another sort of ‘change’, the leaving of smaller denominations of coin money in one of the Gellmans’ ‘pants’ (meaning trousers), seems a rather blunt instrument to forward the narrative. Mind you, change is driven by money, and money, as they sing in a different musical, makes the world go round. But part of the beauty of this show is in its simplicity, when it comes, dealing as it does with both the historical persecution of both Jews and blacks.

The revolves, which worked so well at Chichester last summer for their reworked Half A Sixpence (and still do, at the time of writing, in the West End), are back for Caroline, Or Change. The orchestra, under the baton of Nigel Lilley, are, like the audience, in three blocks around the relatively small Minerva space, and the sound balance between musicians and performers is spot on. Overall, there's a lot of food for thought in this stunning and spectacular production.

Four stars

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