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.
Reviewed on 17th May 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue:
BKLYN The Musical
Reviewed – 20th March 2021
“an extraordinary amalgam of film and theatre, brought vividly to life by an extraordinary array of talent”
On paper, “BKLYN The Musical” appears to be an ambitious musical to stage. The narrative scale is quite epic, moving from sixties Paris to downtown Brooklyn, crossing not just the Atlantic but a couple of decades too, with an imagined stopover in Vietnam. Backstories mingle with imagined futures, dreams and alternative realities. A recent staging at Greenwich Theatre in 2019 revealed some of these shortcomings in an otherwise well received production; described variously as brave and bold.
Fast forward eighteen months and imagine the courage and faith a company must need to tackle this musical in the midst of a pandemic. Lambert Productions have done just that and their own particular take, part theatre part film, is quite simply stunning. Simplicity is the key. Filmed at the Ugly Duck space near London Bridge, it uses the sparse, semi-derelict atmosphere of the venue to wondrous effect. The artistic decisions, seemingly small, have a massive impact. Stripped back we can absorb the narrative and get right to the heart of the characters.
“BKLYN” is a play within a play. It opens with street singer (Newtion Matthews) drawing a like-minded band of itinerant troubadours together to tell the story of Brooklyn; born of a mother living in Paris and an American father who disappears from their lives. Orphaned at a young age, Brooklyn later uses her inborn talents as a singer to try to find fame, fortune and her father in America. All she has is an unfinished lullaby; a wordless leitmotif her father wrote that her mother passed onto her. Finding the refrain will hopefully lead her to her fairy-tale ending.
As the story unfolds, the players slip into the characters being portrayed. The parallel lives are depicted by deft costume changes, camera angles and lighting effects. Dean Johnson’s cinematography and Sam Diaz’s editing are flawless, matched by Andrew Exeter’s design and Matt Davies’ lighting. Although you are aware of the multi-take filming process, director Dean Johnson’s masterstroke is that you constantly forget. The piece feels very real, very live and, as a result, it is a very emotional experience.
But save the best for last. The cast. Again – small in scale but epic in projection and talent. But first the score. A blistering catalogue of soaring power ballads interspersed with up-tempo R&B soul that sweeps you off your feet. Lyrically they occasionally flirt with Disney sentimentality, but the cast collectively grab these floating nuances and crush them into the ground. Follow your dreams is the overriding message of hope, but you have to dig deep and dig up the dirt. It’s a “Sidewalk Fairy-tale” intones the street singer, steering the show well clear of schmaltz.
Newtion Matthew narrates, as the street singer who morphs into the ‘Magic Man’, a kind of fairy-godfather. With the voice of the ‘Soul Man’ he guides us, lifts us and eventually breaks our hearts when he delivers the final twist in the tale. Emma Kingston as the eponymous Brooklyn shatters all preconceptions of the fairy-tale princess with her spirit of steel and voice of crystal. Jamie Muscato, even if a little fresh faced and youthful, convincingly portrays the drug addled Vietnam veteran. His letters never reach Brooklyn’s mother, the tragic and ill-fated Faith, touchingly played by Sejal Keshwala. The vocal demands are huge, but the voices are pushed to their limits, but never beyond. In particular Marisha Wallace whose vocal performance truly stands out. She is ‘Paradice’, the villain of the piece who demands that we love to hate her. But we just end up loving her instead.
We are watching a show in a disused warehouse, but at times we could be in Madison Square Gardens, at others in a Brooklyn back alley. The panoramic sense of location is matched by the sweeping lyricism of the songs. With us barely noticing, a verse can chuck out a diatribe on homelessness, immigration, racism and the empty façade of the American Dream. These messages are quite subliminal and never encroach – the overall effect is purely emotive.
The overriding message though is one that you’ll want to pass onto as many people as possible, which is that this is an extraordinary amalgam of film and theatre, brought vividly to life by an extraordinary array of talent.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography courtesy Sam Diaz and Dean Johnson
BKLYN The Musical
Jonathan’s reviews this year: