It’s 1963 and Eddie Birdlace has one more night before him and his fellow marine buddies (Bernstein and Boland – the three bees) ship out to the Vietnam war. Full of the certainty of their invincibility and the promise of a hero’s return, the marines spend their night partaking in a long honoured tradition: the dogfight. A simple premise. Each marine puts in fifty bucks. They throw a party. The marine who can bring the ugliest date wins the leftover money. When Eddie meets Rose he is sure he has found the perfect girl for the dogfight, but he doesn’t bargain for what comes next.
At its heart this is a love story but it is also investigates toxic masculinity. The marines have only had thirteen weeks training, and can’t be more than nineteen years old. They are vessels of a violent and ugly misogyny, but at the same time they are no more than boys, naive and vulnerable, in no way ready to face war. In heartbreaking juxtaposition, Rose is a breath of fresh air to the stage, intelligent, interesting and ultimately kind.
The performers are all members of the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible training and performance opportunities to young people under the age of twenty three. And what a cast they are. Across the board they are full of energy and conviction, and there isn’t a weak link onstage. Our leading pair played by Stephen Lewis-Johnson and Claire Keenan in this performance – two casts alternate – are brilliant. Keenan is particularly compelling, funny and genuine, immediately likeable. She is utterly engaging to watch. Her and Lewis-Johnson are in turn lovely together, and both vocally really strong. Lewis-Johnson’s lonely return from Vietnam is an undeniably powerful end to the show which he delivers with the full emotional punch it deserves.
The band are faultless. It’s a fantastic score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (both music and lyrics) that they handle with accomplishment and ease.
The set by Dean Johnson and Andrew Exeter is simple but effective. The band, lit by warm lamps are at the back of the stage and the different settings are created by wooden crates. A particularly lovely moment sees light bulbs suspended by cast members to create street lamps around Eddie and Rose on their first date.
This a brilliant and nuanced musical that is delivered by an incredibly talented cast and band.
“The energy and commitment of the cast is undeniable, as is their pure joy in performing”
Once On This Island is set in the French Antilles, and tells the story of a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with a Frenchman, Daniel, who lives in the grand hotel on the other side of the island. Ti Moune’s love plays out as part of a battle between the gods Papa Ge (the demon of death) and Erzule (the goddess of love) as to who is the strongest, and although Ti Moune ends up cast aside by her lover, in favour of a French noble woman, the gods look kindly on her loyalty to Daniel, and she is reincarnated as a tree, which eventually grows, cracks the hotel gates and allows future generations to live together in harmony. The story is part Romeo and Juliet, part Little Mermaid, and the score is rich in calypso and Caribbean rhythms.
The musical is one of The British Theatre Academy’s summer shows, and, with its nineteen strong cast, Once On This Island is a perfect choice to showcase the talents of its alumni. Lee Proud (director) runs a tight ship, and the production is pacy and professional, with every performer, from the leads to the ensemble, giving their all 100% of the time, which is fantastic to see. The energy and commitment of the cast is undeniable, as is their pure joy in performing. Inevitably, there are weaker links here, but the strength of the collective is such that it doesn’t matter. Similarly, some of the more hackneyed choreography and design choices are glossed over by the brio of the production as a whole.
That said, the high-octane energy could become relentless, and both the production and certain individual performances would have benefitted from a bit more light and shade. This wasn’t helped by the sound, which was deafening. The Southwark Playhouse is a relatively small space, and, although it is now done as a matter of course, this reviewer again questioned the necessity of miking up the performers. The audience is perfectly capable of hearing the singers at such close quarters, and miked-up singing exaggerates an already-present musical theatre stridency in many of the voices. Clarity and vocal strength, however, were on point throughout.
Chrissie Bhima, as Ti Moune, demonstrated terrific tone and control, and made the most of her belters, especially her opening number ‘Waiting for Life’, but the voice of the evening was that of Aviva Tulley, who was masterful throughout and truly came into her own with her showstopper ‘The Human Heart’. Already a subtle, expressive, powerful performer, she is bound to have an exciting future. Credit too to Marie-Anna Caufour for her touching performance as Euralie, Ti Moune’s adopted mother, and to Jonathan Chen for his rousing portrayal of the Earth Mother Asaka.
Once On This Island is not a particularly arresting musical, lyrically, musically or in terms of its story, but it is lots of fun. And this particular production feels like a celebration, full of youthful energy and love. And that really ain’t a bad thing to be a part of on a summer evening.