Theatre: Songs that cross America’s great divide

Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, or Change

Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre is an adult musical for adult audiences. The subject matter is race relations between African-Americans and American Jews in 1963, the year of President Kennedy’s assassination and the rise of the Civil Rights movement. The book and lyrics are by Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame. Jeanine Tesori’s melodious score embraces a wide range of idioms and the show is entirely sung-through.

Caroline (Sharon D Clarke, excellent), a black single mother, works for a middle-class Jewish family in Louisiana. She spends most of her working day in the basement and earns a pittance. Caroline becomes a surrogate mother to her boss’s eight-year-old son (Charlie Gallacher, also excellent) who one day mistakenly leaves a $20 bill in his trousers which she is to wash – there is an almighty row when she says she is going to keep it.

Clarke is a great singer and actress, and the musical is emotionally deeply involving. The production, directed by Michael Longhurst, is transferring to the West End in the autumn.

The Abbey Theatre in Dublin invited Sean Holmes to direct Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising. The production now comes to Lyric Hammersmith with many of the original cast. The play offers a slice of Dublin tenement life and a reminder that far more people died of malnutrition and consumption than were killed in the war.

On the fourth night of the premiere at the Abbey Theatre in 1926 there were riots. The audience did not like the unflattering portrayal of the Irish as cowards, braggarts, looters and windbags, and thought O’Casey was ridiculing the men who had died during the Uprising.

The fine ensemble is led by Niall Buggy, very funny and perfect casting for the irritated Peter Flynn. But the play loses much of its impact when it is not staged in its correct period. I wish Holmes had given his production the full 1916 reality in clothes and settings. What we see on stage looks like a rehearsal room before the first full dress rehearsal.

Laurie Sansom directs a new version of Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spiderwoman by José Rivera and Allan Baker at Menier Chocolate Factory. It is a story of loneliness, compassion and humanity.

Two men share a prison cell in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship. The play is about their relationship: they have nothing in common and are seemingly incompatible. Molina (Samuel Barnett) is a homosexual window-dresser; Valentin (Declan Bennett) is a Marxist freedom fighter. Molina lives in a fantasy world of bad movies which he loves to embroider in the retelling.

In Sansom’s production, as he speaks, the fantasies are projected in silhouette on to the concrete walls of the prison, a totally unnecessary and distracting addition.

The 1985 film works better than this play. In the film there is brilliant parody of a terrible French Resistance movie which is hilarious in its own right and at the very end we actually see what happens which is far more exciting than having it reported. The actors, nevertheless, hold the attention. Barnet has the showier role and gives his best performance since he acted Posner in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.