Caroline, or Change, review: Remarkably bright storytelling for such a downtrodden story ★★★★★

Expect a West End transfer: Caroline, or Change is an astonishing musical with strength and soul.

Giant US playwright Tony Kushner, who also penned Angels In America, has a bed of successful productions of this miraculous musical already on his CV.

The show breathes new life into the sad familiarity of the narrative surrounding the civil rights movement, using ingenious storytelling.

One past incarnation of Caroline, Or Change won the Olivier for Best New Musical, while another triumphed from New York’s Public Theatre to a successful run on Broadway. This production will turn heads in equal measure.

The premise feels in familiar territory, before it’s blown out of the water. It’s 1963 and underground civil rights movements are gaining pace in America’s cities.

In the small town of Lake Charles, Louisiana, though, Caroline is “under water” rather than underground, washing a white family’s clothes for $30 a week. Her growing children and friends rally around to help her sculpt a better life, but Caroline is unalterable: by religion, and financial and social obligation.

The musical imaginatively combines visual storytelling with narrative and deft musical performance in a way that feels crushingly absorbing.

Hampstead Theatre’s 400-cap space is a glove fit for the show’s delightfully hand-made feel. Fly Davis’ set frames the action with surprising and playful designs with dreamlike qualities that sometimes present scenes almost as pantomime.

Perhaps eighty percent of Fly’s set is the basement of a middle class house, where Caroline works. The audience are down there with her, and it takes some time before anyone appears on the well-lit terrace above, where the home owners live.

In the dark, Jack Knowles’ lighting design makes the basement an overwhelming place to be even for the audience, who are starved of a proper look inside the pleasantly decorated upstairs. The basement also doubles for other theatrical images which represent the oppression black workers felt, such as the presentation of a bus made out of a singing ensemble of sad workers travelling home.

Sharon D. Clarke sizzles and soars in equal measure as exhausted, beaten-down Caroline; constantly doing washing, she looks genuinely on her last legs at age 39.

D. Clarke has lungs for belting and a look of gaunt hopelessness. She is best during staggering emotional solo, Sunday Morning. It’s a confessional song, set in church and sung to God, where she reveals her fear that she can’t modernise – it’s sterling stuff.

The depth of Kushner’s writing nails the frustration and anger felt at being both misunderstood and pitied at work.

Jeanine Tesori’s diverse, soulful music is threaded through non-stop. There are big ballads, but the narrative is often slung, rather than sung and delivered in rhyming couplets not dissimilar to Hamilton’s. It has a similarly breathless and thrilling effect on the pace of the show.

Tying together a theme of loss are Lauren Ward’s step-mom character Rose, boss to Caroline and down south from New York to marry home owner Stuart Gellman, and actors Charlie Gallacher and Aaron Gelkoff, who diligently share the role of son Noah Gellman, whose mum has passed on.

Lauren Ward captures Rose’s basic nature and sense of entitlement, all the while being a blissfully energetic watch as she fusses about the place misunderstanding Caroline’s needs as she does Noah’s.

The child actors are all excellent. Caroline’s sons Jackie and Joe Thibodeaux, played in rotation by Kenyah Sandy and Mickell Stewart-Grimes and Josiah Choto and David Dube, have talent way beyond their years.

The dramatic weight and excellence of Kushner’s plot inevitably derives from tragic Caroline, who has had the world pass her by. In her children though, there is hope for the future. Grown-up daughter Emmie Thibodeaux in particular, played confidently by Abiona Omonua, has already begun her way out of the dark and this dazzling show is her vehicle.

Caroline, Or Change plays at the Hampstead Theatre until April 21, click here for tickets