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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Once On This Island at the Southwark Playhouse - Review

Who Made It?

Once On This Island was created in 1990 by the duo Lynn Ahrens (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Steven Flaherty (who composed the score). It is based on the novella 'My Love, My Love' by Rosa Guy, which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Little Mermaid. This production has been produced and created by the British Theatre Academy, with Lee Proud directing it

Once On This Island is being performed at the Southwark Playhouse, a small theatre in South London. It officially opens tonight and runs until 31st August.

What’s It About?

Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune (played by Chrissie Bhima), an orphaned peasant girl living on an island in the French Antilles. The peasants there are often at the mercy of the unpredictable weather brought about by four gods – Asaka, the Mother of the Earth (played by Johnathan Chen), Agwe the God of Water (played by Kyle Birch), Ezrule the Goddess of Love (played by Aviva Tulley) , and Papa Ge, the God of Death (played by Martin Cush).  Meanwhile, the Island elite, the grand hommes, live a life of luxury in grand hotels and apartments. When Daniel Beauxhomme (played by Sam Tutty), son of the most powerful grand hommes, crashes his car during a thunderstorm unleashed by Agwe, Ti Moune rescues him and nurses him back to health. In order to ensure his survival, she offers her soul to the Papa Ge. When Daniel is returned to his home, Ti Moune soon sets off on a grand quest to find him again, aided by Asaka and Ezrulie. However, Daniel may not be able to return Ti Moune’s love, and she finds herself having to face the consequences of her deal with Papa Ge…


(Note: This Review Contains Spoilers) 

The Southwark Playhouse production of Once On This Island is the third production of this musical to be staged in London. The first took place in 1994 at the Royalty Theatre (later replaced by the Peacock Theatre) and won an Oliver Award for Best New Musical. The second was staged at the Hackney Empire in 2009. This revival is the smallest of the three, taking place in a 300 seat auditorium with a cast consisting of performers from the British Theatre Academy. However, it still manages to be a creative and colourful production, making a convincing case that Once On This Island should be revived more often in the UK.. 

Once On This Island returned to prominence in late 2017 as the result of an innovative Broadway revival which won a Tony Award. The version was notable for its “in the round staging”, and the Southwark Playhouse emulates this to brilliant effect.  When you walk into the auditorium, you cross the front of the stage and pass the actors as you get to your seats. There are washing lines surrounding the auditorium and tyres and boxes everywhere. As in Broadway, this immersive staging makes it feel like you have been taken to a world far removed from the grey tedium of the city outside the theatre.  The staging of that version is not the only thing copied here. Asaka (played by the legendary Sharon D Clarke in both previous London versions) is now played by a heavyset actor in drag, and the action is implied to specifically take place in Haiti (the map on the floor has Haiti illuminated). The recycled costumes form the basis for the masks used by the four gods.

However, the production (designed by Simon Wells) has some unique visual flourishes of its own. Daniel's car is depicted in impressively minimalistic fashion, and a small stepladder is used in several creative ways. The climactic effect, involving a very special tree, feels truly grand and impressive in the confined space. The production also features some incredible lighting (provided by Andrew Exeter), with intense changes in colour which really convey the mood of each scene and smoky light that really make you feel the heat and humidity of the setting. Audiences rarely give much though to the lighting, so it’s great to see so much effort put into this aspect of the production. Whilst this version is not as grand as the one on Broadway (there are no live chickens or goats here!) it is still pretty impressive on its own terms.

The director and choreographer is Lee Proud, who worked as an assistant choreographer on the long running West End adaptation of Billy Eliot and has directed other Southwark Playhouse productions . He does a solid job in this production. The ensemble give excellent performances, with the dancing being timed excellently and the effects being performed smoothly. During Ezrule's song 'The Human Heart', the ensemble all carry small jars of lights, enhancing the emotional power of the number. Given that the musical is approximately 85% music and 10% narration, the songs are the main attraction, and need to be really impressive. Fortunately, the performances have a real electric energy that makes the musical compelling to watch. In this context, the confined space is a real advantage, as it ensures that the power of the songs remains consistent throughout. The perfrmances could have fallen flat on a larger stage, but here, every member of the audience gets to fully appreciate the power of the instrumentals and the energy of the performaners.

As the performance is being given by youth actors from the British Theatre Academy, it is unfair to compare them to veterans like Lea Salonga, Clive Rowe and Sharon D. Clarke, who have appeared in previous productions of Once On This Island. However, there are times when their lack of experience is distracting. During big songs like "Waiting For Life" and "Mama Will Provide" they sometimes get drowned out by the loud backing band, although they generally recover and finish impressively. In addition, the gods and Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are best portrayed by older actors, as they provide the gravitas necessary for these characters to have full impact. However, the performers are all likeable and charismatic, and three of the were especially impressive. As Ezrule, Aviva Tulley initially seems to be overshadowed by the other gods, but her subtle performance conveys wisdom and compassion . As the sinister Papa Ge - the most antagonistic of the gods - Martin Cush has the wiry intensity required for the role, but has a couple of comic and even tender moments which he handles well. However, the best performance is from Chrissie Bhima as Ti Moune - she dominates the story. Though most of the musical is sung, Ti Moune gets the majority of dialogue, and proves excellent at conveying emotion during the darker and more dramatic moments. These three have the talent and ability to be headlining major musicals in the near future.

For all the great aspects of this production, it also reveals the main flaw with Once On This Island, which have prevented it reaching the status of better known musicals. The story and characterisation are relatively simplistic, probably due to the short 85 minute runtime and large amount of songs. The most significant addition to The Little Mermaid template is the "love defeats prejudice" message, but it feels a bit underdeveloped. The "Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" , which explains why the grand hommes are fated to always reject the peasants, is played for comedy as much as tragedy, which is an unwise idea given the bleak and unpleasant reality of this subject matter (The Grand Hommes are descended from a slaveowner who cursed them after being booted off the Island during the a Revolution) Daniel’s shameful heritage puts a disturbing new angle in his reluctance to follow his heart, but this isn't explored. In fact, the only song to really exploit the prejudice angle is "Gossip", where the grand hommes voice their suspicions about Ti Moune. It is one of the strongest songs, and more of the numbers should have examined the hostility she faces. 

The focus on style over substance also means that the characters are a bit flat. Ti Moune is a very fiesty and single minded character, but it's hard to warm to a lead willing to risk her life for a guy who doesn't really know her. Daniel is a relatively two-dimensional male lead, and his song "Some Girls" is one of the weaker numbers, but he's well meaning enough to ensure that he remains somewhat likeable despite his bad decisions (the fact that Sam Tutty never buttons his shirt helps as well) The Gods have probably the most interesting arc, as Ti Moune's tenacity inspires them to show kindness and compassion, but they are absent for long stretches, especially during the middle.

However, fairy tales are not meant to be sophisticated explorations of human growth and complexity. Productions such as Once On This Island should primarily be judged on their ability to provide emotion, and this version resoundingly succeeds in that regard. The production generally remains upbeat and positive, but the sadder and more serious aspects are handled carefully and honestly. In the best The Little Mermaid tradition, the ending is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and the concluding song, "Why We Tell The Story" is truly joyous. As great as the other songs are, "Why We Tell the Story" is the real stand out, with its catchy call-and-response hook and its inspirational but also thought provoking lyrics. Like the best fairy tales, its story is simple but its messages are deep. For all the catchy music and colourful visuals, Once On This Island powerfully demonstrates that one tenacious girl can overturn an entire unfair system.


The Southwark Playhouse production of Once On This Island is an excellent treat for those willing to look past the West End and watch something smaller and more creative, The production highlights some of the limitations of the source material, but it also showcases its strengths. The soundtrack is excellent, the staging is unique and creative the main messages are valuable and relevant, even if they could have been emphasised more. This production is a wonderful burst of escapism and  we will hopefully get to see more productions of Once On This Island in London in the future.


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