ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
“It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show”
Based on a book (‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy), in turn based on a fairy tale (Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’), “Once On This Island” has used the bare bones of each while dressing it with more than a touch of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, throwing in shades of Alberto Casella’s ‘Death Takes a Holiday’. It is a mix that produces something exciting and effervescent but is ultimately not so easy to swallow. Or follow.
Set in the Antilles archipelago bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the story within a story focuses on Ti Moune, a peasant girl, who falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a ‘grand homme’ from the other side of the island and the class divide. The island is ruled by four Haitian Vodou Gods (of earth, water, love and death). Ti Moune and Beauxhomme are brought together as a result of a wager among the gods. Is love stronger than death? Or vice versa?
Directed by Ola Ince, it opens the new season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. As dark clouds spill their empty threats over London, a fabricated storm ignites the stage and the action. A burst of sight and sound, but lacking real substance. It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show. Stephen Flaherty’s music (with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) creates the atmosphere and the setting, despite Georgia Lowe’s sparse backdrop that fails to give any real sense of location. As the sun sets, however, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s evocative lighting creates the requisite tropical hues that help us to forget the London chill.
The solid cast lead us through the musical numbers with an energy that keeps the piece alive. Gabrielle Brooks, as the adult Ti Moune, gives a powerful and enchanting performance, locked in the suffering of her unconditional love for Stephenson Arden-Sodje’s perfectly voiced yet undeserving Daniel. One fails to see how Daniel earns such devotion, nor can we truly understand the sacrifices Ti Moune makes for him. But after all, we are in the hands of the Gods, so it is best just to relish in the pageant. It is a show for the senses and not for the heart.
With a six-piece band – led by Musical Director Chris Poon- tucked away somewhere in the treetops, the ensemble cast are given the propulsion needed to reach for the stars, aided by some fine numbers. ‘Mama Will Provide’ lets Anelisa Lamola’s voice soar as Asaka, the Mother of the Earth. The standout is Lejaun Sheppard’s Papa Ge: Demon of Death, who sets the stage alight (literally) each time he appears. Yet each cast member is an indispensable pulse that keeps the beat throughout. The belting numbers ‘Waiting for Life’, ‘Pray’ and ‘Forever Yours’ early in the show are later reprised and given new life and meaning.
There is plenty of life in this revival of “Once On This Island” but not so much meaning. There is definitely enough to satisfy the senses in this little pocket of London where Camden borders the Caribbean.
“It is sleek, well-oiled and will surely be burning bright for quite some time”
Even with the help of a 1.21 gigawatts flux capacitor and an unhealthy dose of radioactive plutonium, 88 mph seems a pretty modest speed required to propel a rear-engine ‘DeLorean’ through time. But this piece of eighties iconography has no trouble landing on the stage of the Adelphi Theatre in the twenty-first century, swept along by the sheer force of a gravity-defying publicity machine and the collective, kick-starting power of a couple of thousand fans a night, adding to the lightning bolts of energy that burst throughout the auditorium. To say “Back to the Future: The Musical” is spectacular is an understatement. It showers us with special effects, jaw-dropping sets and transitions, blurs of neon, CGI magic and a hi-wattage, fifties/eighties mash up of a soundtrack. It is sleek, well-oiled and will surely be burning bright for quite some time.
But listen closely and you hear some troublesome knocking in the engine. Not enough to stall it and too quiet to worry the crowd, the flaws are invariably swamped by the energy of the performances. It’s a bizarre adaptation of the film; simultaneously faithful to the original but adding quirks and eccentricities that don’t always sit comfortably with the source material. Doc Brown attracts an ensemble of backing singers and dancers like flies. It’s a lot of fun, is wonderfully appealing to the ears and eyes and it breaks the fourth wall. But you wonder why. The music and lyrics of Alan Silvestri and Glan Ballard are crowd pleasing pastiches, with words and rhymes full of witty observation and humour; but sometimes side-stepping into banality. The almost relentless breaking into song takes away from the narrative and the characterisation; we barely have time to take a breath (so how do the cast cope?) and we miss those moments when we can absorb the concepts of space, time and history that the film allowed us to contemplate.
Yet despite being stripped of at least one dimension of their characters, the cast give impeccable performances. Olly Dobson, as Marty McFly, is a dead ringer for Michael J. Fox and is a fireball of energy. When he arrives back in 1955, the moments when his teenage mother (Rosanna Hyland) has ‘the hots’ for him are played for real laughs. (It is bizarre to note that when the film was originally pitched to Disney, the appalled executives rejected it outright, declaring it to be a movie about incest). More emphasis is placed on Marty’s relationship with his dad, George. Hugh Coles gives one of the stand-out performances; lanky and geeky with angular awkwardness, and often hilarious in the way only a highly skilled mover can re-enact ‘bad dancing’. Roger Bart’s Doc Brown is a contagious concoction of quirks, marred only by his over playing to the audience at times.
The special effects, sets and lighting are as much a lead role as the protagonists. Tim Lutkin’s lighting, Finn Ross’ video design, coupled with Chris Fisher’s illusion design, Gareth Owen’s sound and The Twins FX animatronics cannot fail to produce a breath-taking show. Add on the extra layers of Chris Bailey’s sleek, though sometimes excessive, choreography; and musical director Jim Henson’s thirteen-piece band and you have a display that defies the laws of physics. Like the well-worn bumblebee flight myth (it is a scientific and aerodynamic impossibility that bumblebees can fly – yet fly they do) the unconventional components that make up this vehicle should leave it grounded. It shouldn’t do – but it flies. It soars even. Although not timeless, it will stand the test of time and we’ll still be seeing this show in the West End way back to the future.