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.
“Ola Ince’s direction has facilitated exceptional performances from all the cast”
It’s difficult to believe Appropriate was written over eight years ago; it seems so precisely pointed at the current ‘post-truth’ culture ushered in by climate change deniers, flat-Earthers, and boggling accusations of fake news that you’d think Branden Jacobs-Jenkins had penned it within the past few months. There’s even a remark about a Supreme Court judge which seems to perfectly tie in with the controversy involving Brett Kavanaugh less than a year ago. It must instead be a testament to the inescapable and unflinching truths that Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing brings centre-stage that the play has so much to reflect on in 2019.
Appropriate focuses around the Lafayettes, a staggeringly dysfunctional family forced to convene to deal with their recently-deceased father’s immensely unkempt plantation house. Comprised of the argumentative and devoted Toni (Monica Dolan), pragmatic yet money-driven Bo (Steven Mackintosh), and fraught recovering addict Franz (Edward Hogg), tensions rise to extreme levels over the ghosts of their pasts, as they are forced to reconcile with the notion that – being a plantation owner – their father may not have been as good a man as they’d initially thought. The insecurities and inherited generational ignorance are exacerbated further by Toni’s reclusive son Rhys (Charles Furness), Franz’s notably younger fiancée River (Tafline Steen), and Bo’s mothering wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff) and teenage daughter Cassie (Isabella Pappas) who’s determined to be treated like an adult. Each character feels like they’ve been perfectly crafted to prod and provoke the others in ways that are a joy to watch.
Ola Ince’s direction has facilitated exceptional performances from all the cast, although Dolan is particularly noteworthy as the ferocious epicentre of most of the play’s conflict, constantly finding new texture and nuance to bring to her numerous embittered tirades, imbuing a sense of vulnerability that is slowly revealed. That’s not to say that Jacobs-Jenkins’ script doesn’t give every character a chance to shine; Furness and Pappas, for example, share a sensitive and poignant scene reflecting on the buzz of the cicadas surrounding the house – a cacophony brought to life by Donato Wharton’s claustrophobic sound design. Other design elements are equally exceptional, such as the Lafayettes’ late father’s hoarding realised brilliantly in the overwhelmingly creaky and creepy set from Fly Davis.
Despite that Appropriate is framed primarily as a family drama, there are also undercurrents of horror – characters feel presences, lightbulbs flicker, and objects move of their own volition when no-one’s in the room. It gave the impression that these two genres were going to collide spectacularly in the play’s climax, but it unfortunately fizzles out in an underwhelming montage. It’s a shame to end on such a forgettable note, because Appropriate is otherwise an urgent wake-up call to how the way we remember the past could be cataclysmic for the future.