REVIEW: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (Southwark Playhouse) ★★★★

Once On This Island is a multi-award winning musical with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty (Anastasia, Seussical and Ragtime). The show was first presented at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in May of 1990 and a Broadway production followed opening in October of the same year. The European premiere took place in 1994 at Birmingham Rep and then transferred to the Peacock Theatre, London the same year winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Since then, the musical has been revived in the UK in 2009 and on Broadway in 2017. This Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, covered the stage in sand, featured live animals and the set and costume design were created to suggest a wrecked beach community in the wake of a hurricane.

Following in the footsteps of this brilliant Broadway revival, Once On This Island returns to London in a youth production at the Southwark Playhouse produced by The British Theatre Academy. Directed and choreographed by multi award-winning Lee Proud (Grand Hotel and Allegro), London audiences once again have the opportunity to see this full-hearted musical performed by the very best up and coming West End talent.

Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island it is set in the French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea and 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 Daniel, a rich city boy whom she saves from death. When Daniel is returned to his people, the fantastical gods who rule the island guide Ti Moune on a quest that will test the strength of her love against the powerful forces of prejudice, hatred and even death.

As Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, Anna Caufour as Mama Euralie and Andre Beswick as Ton Ton Julian do a fine job playing the older couple. Thought has been given by both actors to effectively physically and vocally play a character of an older generation and Caufour’s vocal is beautifully controlled throughout letting loose finally in the last scene and showing impressive power with A Part Of Us.

As with many of the actors in this production, Elliot Gooch plays multiple characters throughout. From the Gateskepper to his main role as Daniel’s stern father Armand Beauxhomme, Gooch displays an air of confidence and is captivating with every character he portrays which makes him a talent to watch. Mainly portraying Daniel’s betrothed Andrea Deveraux, we find another versatile actor in Odelia Dizel-Cubuca. As an ensemble member Dizel-Cubuca is energetic and joyous and in the latter half of the show has an impressive turn as the jealous but ultimately understanding Andrea Deveraux. Displaying expert vocal ability, Dizel-Cubuca shines as she leads the affecting When We Are Wed at a heart-breaking moment in the show.

As the gods Martin Cush, Jonathan Chen, Aviva Tulley and Kyle Birch work extremely well together. Each gods characteristic (Death, Mother Earth, Love and Water) was easily identifiable through the actor’s physicality which gave the gods an effective sense of other-worldliness. As Mother Earth Asaka, Jonathan Chen serves a powerful vocal on Mama Will Provide and Aviva Tulley as Erzule our Goddess of Love delivers a beautifully sweet and affecting The Human Heart.

As Little Ti Moune, Kassidy Taylor has a graceful stage presence and a sweet singing voice. As Daniel Beauxhomme, Sam Tutty has a youthful confident exuberance that fits the character perfectly and an impressive tenor vocal that delivers a scrumptious controlled flip into falsetto. Chrissie Bhima is quite simply an astounding talent. Stopping the show after her first song as Ti Moune for a good 30 seconds while the audience applauded, Bhima went from strength to strength giving light and dark moments in a performance that could easily have been on any West End stage. Bhima is a talent to watch and I look forward to following her career after graduation.

This production of Once On This Island is presented in traverse. Having audience on two sides of a long stage provides it’s own challenges and the cast and director Lee Proud mostly rise to these challenges successfully. Overall Proud’s direction uses the space effectively, dividing the space where necessary and depicting scenes clearly. It’s common with school shows that everyone in the cast should be given a chance to shine. A combination of having such a large cast in a small space, having the action jump over the stage, sound issues and slow lighting ques on press night made it hard to follow the action and identify who was singing what line before the next person started to sing. Some of the cast made attempts to move the audience focus onto the next action point on the stage, however a more focused direction on this aspect when the full cast were on stage would have helped an audience understand what was going on and given the cast much more of a chance to have their moment.

Once On This Island is a musical that isn’t produced often and The British Theatre Academy production is a wonderful chance to see the show. Joyous, full-hearted and exceptionally performed by an extremely talented cast of young performers.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Elza Wilmot


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