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Once On This Island at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Rather like the porridge of the smallest of the three bears in the Goldilocks story, there’s much in this production of Once On This Island that is ‘just right’. Set in the ‘Jewel of the Antilles’ – that is, Haiti, a peasant girl called Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks) is spared death by a storm caused by Agwe (Ashley Samuels), the god of water in the Haitian Vodou religion, or as a brief introduction to Haitian Vodou in the show’s programme puts it, ‘captain of the seas’, because she has climbed a tree and stayed above floodwater levels. Eventually persuaded to come down, she is adopted by Mama Euralie (Natasha Magigi) and Tonton Julian (Chris Jarman).

Chris Jarman (Tonton), Natasha Magigi (Mama Euralie) and ensembl in Once On This Island. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Photographer Marc Brenner.

The first few scenes combine music and choreography to create a suitably relaxed atmosphere, but one that also continued to hold the audience’s attention, as opposed to being so laid back that one is tempted to have a little snooze. Not here – there’s plenty going on, but not so much that the story becomes confusing. Elements such as water and fire, the latter being associated with Papa Ge (Lejaun Sheppard), who came across to me as a Haitian version of the Grim Reaper, are evident in the staging of this relatively big budget production, but with a degree of subtlety that allows the story itself to retain its centrality. As I began by saying, it’s ‘just right’.

What happens to Ti Moune eventually was a surprise to yours truly, who hadn’t seen the show before: let’s just say there is a musical theatre happy ending, but how the narrative reaches it is something I wouldn’t have predicted given a hundred guesses. There’s something refreshingly different about a departure from the Disney-esque damsel in distress who needs a prince to rescue her from whatever it is she needs rescuing from, even if so many elements of The Little Mermaid story make their way into this one. Very well, it’s hardly a brand new narrative, though it’s still progressive for a peasant to be the one to rescue a ‘grand homme’ (translated from French as ‘great man’), Daniel Beauxhomme (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje).

Having recently seen some shows where I found myself working hard to piece together narrative fragments, I had much admiration for the storytelling in this show. It’s intelligent and intelligible, and while not everything is immediately revealed, whatever questions were forming in my mind were firmly resolved by curtain call. The roles of the gods, Agwe, Pape Ge, Asaka (Anelisa Lamola), Mother of the Earth, and Erzulie (Emilie Louise Israel), the god, or perhaps goddess, of love, aren’t that far removed from that of the gods in the canon of Shakespeare, able to exercise control over human life.

Not every bit of staging makes perfect sense – I couldn’t, from my vantage point, work out what Ti Moune was drawing on the floor with chalk. Perhaps what was more irritating was that none of the drawings were directly referred to – so why were they there? Some things are described rather than dramatized, which again keeps the storytelling going strong. Directly telling the audience what happened can be, and is in this production, immensely powerful, providing moments of poignant reflection before the action resumes.

There’s a little sentimentality, but it’s never overdone. The sound (Nick Lidster) is crystal clear, sufficiently loud and never overbearing. Gabrielle Brooks as Ti Moune has a splendid singing voice – an utter delight to listen to. The musical numbers are excellent, driving the story forward and allowing the production to showcase some very beautiful harmonies. It’s difficult to suspend disbelief to the point where you feel you’ve escaped to the Caribbean for an hour and a half when you’re actually sat in an open-air theatre in springtime Britain. That doesn’t stop this production from being an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A story of love, grief, faith and hope, Once On This Island tells of peasant girl Ti Moune, a boy called Daniel, and a union that prejudice forbids. Against the heat of the Caribbean sun and destruction of tropical storms, can Ti Moune settle the wager of the Gods, and prove that love is more powerful than death?

Based upon the novel ‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy
Book & Lyrics by Lyn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Ola Ince

Wednesday 17 May, 8pm
Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4NU
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London
10 May 2023 – 10 Jun 2023
90 minutes (no interval)

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