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Once On This Island at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Once On This Island - Photo by Elza Wilmot
Once On This Island – Photo by Elza Wilmot

Oh, how I love this time of year. Edinburgh in full swing and so the theatres in London are available to groups like the British Theatre Academy who are in residence during August with their version of Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty’s wonderful tale Once On This Island.

On a stormy night in the Antilles archipelago, life goes on pretty much as normal. The island is divided into two culturally. On one side, the peasants, described as “black as night”, live in their simple huts, worshipping their gods – Asaka: Mother of the Earth (Jonathan Chen), Agwé: god of Water (Kyle Birch), Erzulie: goddess of Love (Aviva Tulley), and Papa Ge: demon of Death (Martin Cush) – living their lives. On the other, live the grands hommes, lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves. Chief among these is Armand (Elliot Gooch), a descendant of the original French aristocrat that colonised the island, and his young handsome son Daniel (Sam Tutty). Normally, these two worlds would never meet but the gods decide to have some fun and cause Daniel to crash his car on the peasants’ side badly injuring the boy. Luckily, he is found by Ti Moune (Chrissie Bhima). Ti Moune had lived an interesting life. As a young girl (Kassidy Taylor/Roisin Cox) the gods have saved her from a terrible storm by placing her in a tree above the flood, where she was found and adopted by peasants Mama Euralie (Marie-Anna Caufour) and Ton Julian (Andre Beswick). Now grown up, Ti Moune is convinced the gods saved her for a mighty purpose and she believes that this purpose is to save the life of Daniel. But, as ABBA once said, “the gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice” and the plan the gods have may is much more convoluted than a simple life saving exercise as Ti Moune, Daniel and the islanders find out.
Once on This Island is a really lovely story, that will feel familiar to anyone that has seen Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and has been beautifully realised by the British Theatre Academy with Director/Choreographer Lee Proud putting together a truly awesome production. As we took our seats, we got to meet various inhabitants of the island as they wandered around chatting and offering things for sale – including some very reasonable bamboo canes, suitable for any garden. The lights went down and the 19 strong cast started with the first song ‘We Dance’. What followed was around 85 minutes filled with a delightful story and 20 songs that varied in strength from really good to absolutely amazing – ‘Mama Will Provide’ and ‘The Human Heart’ definitely falling into the latter category. In fact, there isn’t a bad song in the production and the only thing that could have caused a problem was a couple of weak singers in the cast.

Luckily, this was not the case and the singing, dancing and acting first rate from start to finish. The transverse stage worked really well, and, apart from a couple of small microphone issues at the start, the singing was clear and pure throughout. Amongst this amazing cast, there were some outstanding voices and Jonathan Chen as Asaka, Marie-Anna Caufour as Mama Euralie and especially Chrissie Bhima as Ti Moune really shone for me.
The band, under Musical Director Chris Ma sounded great, and at times it felt that there were more than six people performing music. Simon Wells set is mainly at either end of the stage dominated with a beautifully drawn map of the on the floor, and a huge circle of light at one end.

Was there anything about this production I didn’t like? Actually, no there wasn’t. There were moments which took my breath away – particularly the moment when Sam Tully’s Daniel seemed to have a twin as Ti Moune cuddled him while he stood watching her. Still not sure how it happened but very impressed anyway. And I have to give credit to everyone on stage for the way they threw themselves heart and soul into the performance which was fast, energetic and just spellbinding. Final note, about the ending, which started sadly, cue sniffles from reviewer, and ended beautifully cue tears of happiness from reviewer.

Whilst the audience on a press night is not always the most unbiased – good old family and friends – the whoops, cheers and standing ovation at the end of this performance of Once on This Island were definitely well deserved, and I can’t wait to see the next British Theatre Academy production, Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse from the 19th to 31st August 2019.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Once On This Island 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 a rich city boy whom she saves from death. The Island Gods have different plans for her story, but Ti Moune is destined to love too much for the human heart to bear.

Presented by the British Theatre Academy, this youth production is presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe).

Please note that this show features strong strobe lighting and haze.
Creative Team
Director/Choreographer Lee Proud
Musical Director Chris Ma
Designer Simon Wells
Lighting Andrew Exeter
Sound Andrew Johnson

Cast
Naomi Alade, Ella Biddlecombe, Chrissie Bhima, Kyle Birch, Marie-Anna Caufour, Jonathan Chen, Eithne Cox, Martin Cush, Kingsley De Costa, Odelia Dizel-Cubuca, Nesah Gonzales, Elliot Gooch, Ejiro Richmond, Tommy Robinson, Kassidy Taylor, Aviva Tulley, Sam Tutty, Maddison Tyson, Grace Venus.

British Theatre Academy presents
Once On This Island
Book & Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty
9 – 31 AUG 2019
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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