Review: Once On This Island
Image: Southwark Playhouse
Chrissie Bhima - Ti Moune
Marie-Anna Caufour - Euralie
Andre Beswick - Ton Ton
Sam Tutty - Daniel
Elliot Gooch - Armand
Odelia Dizel-Cubuca - Andrea
Martin Cush - Papa Ge
Jonathan Chen - Asaka
Aviva Tulley - Erzule
Kyle Birch - Agwe
Kassidy Taylor - Little Ti Moune (press night)
Roisin Cox - Little Ti Moune
Ella Biddlecombe - Female Ensemble
Eithne Cox - Female Ensemble
Naomi Alade - Female Ensemble
Nesah Gonzales - Female Ensemble
Grace Venus - Cover Ensemble
Maddison Tyson - Male Ensemble
Tommy Robinson - Male Ensemble
Kingsley De Costa - Male Ensemble
Once On This Island is a captivating calypso-flavoured re-telling of the Little Mermaid fairy tale.
The story begins on a Caribbean island where villagers comfort a little girl with the legend of the romance of the peasant orphan Ti Moune, and a rich city boy whom she saves from death.
The Island Gods have different plans for her story, but Ti Moune is destined to love too much for the human heart to bear.
Presented by the British Theatre Academy, this youth production is presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe).
Features flashing lights and haze.
With 20 numbers packed into an 85 minute running time, this musical almost feels like it's sung-through, but there's just enough in terms of dialogue to break-up the near torrent of music and singing to provide the basics of the plot.
Based on the 1985 novel 'My Love, My Love' by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island won Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards back in 1995 as well as a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2018, so this is a musical with substantial credentials.
And it still offers audiences something to relish - even if it's now almost 3 decades old.
Moreover, it also presents the cast and creative team with a definite challenge in tackling an award-winning show, though there's no sign that any of them are daunted by the prospect.
This production is just one part of a formidable summer season from The British Theatre Academy at Southwark Playhouse, and sees a young cast take to the stage with confident enthusiasm and bags of talent.
A one act musical, Once On This Island is something a little different in the musical theatre department since it describes a kind of fable involving a little girl, four gods, and an island split into racial groups with 'peasants' living in one area of the island and descendants of the original French planters living in another.
The island in question is located in the Antilles archipelago.
Now if your geography is as flaky as mine, then the handy map which is painted on to the stage will help you navigate to the area around Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
The area was subject to European colonisation and it's this historical background that is encapsulated into the storyline where two 'worlds' uneasily co-exist.
Photo by Elza Wilmot
Director and choreographer Lee Proud opts for a traverse stage arrangement that provides more than ample space for all the action and deftly-devised dance sequences that exude masses of energy.
In fact, the energy is already simmering as we file into the auditorium to take our seats with the cast busying themselves around their village and engaging with the audience.
The actual start, where the inhabitants of the island anticipate an approaching storm, felt just a touch too protracted even if the purpose of that initial scene is valid enough.
Once over that, however, the show is performed in pretty-much seamless and flawless fashion.
Within the vast swathe of musicals that continually fetch up in theatres these days, many can only muster lacklustre or rather derivative tunes.
But not so here with Stephen Flaherty's compositions, which incorporate a flavour of calypso but much else besides, providing rich and varied melodies right the way through the piece.
The songs don't quite lock in to one's long-term memory as much as tunes from some other shows, but that oft-quoted test of a musical's impact isn't always justifiable or entirely appropriate.
The vocally skilled cast, though, handle all the numbers with a combination of flair, subtly and, at times, enormous power with some striking renditions of Stephen Flaherty's fine songs, that gained unusually prolonged appreciation from the audience (even by press night standards).
Musical accompaniment rarely gets a look-in in terms of critical praise, but Chris Ma's stalwart band of just 6 certainly deserves plenty of it here, delivering top-notch support for the admirably engaging vocals.
Once On This Island is almost the perfect vehicle for a BTA production since it offers a well-balanced mix of ballads and upbeat numbers, dance and a touch of drama, presenting the cast with ample ingredients to demonstrate their wide-ranging and impressive talents.
And the overall result is a terrific show providing an absorbing evening's entertainment.
And ... next up in the BTA's summer season at Southwark Playhouse will be Dogfight, playing from 19 to 31 August.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Southwark Playhouse
Our show listing for Once On This Island
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