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Once On This Island: Southwark Playhouse.

October 2, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 17th August 2019).

Once again, the British Theatre Academy present a musical of professional quality, featuring a hugely talented cast aged under 23 who, to a young person, will be the backbone of the West End once they graduate.

The monkey only remembers the disaster that this show was, presented by a pretentious producer at the (now) Peacock Theatre in the early 1990s, with the stalls re-labelled “beach-side” or something similar. It won awards, but didn’t last; and pretty much put an end to that theatre as a mainstream musical house.

This keeps it simple, and squeezes the maximum out of what is really a pretty slim folk-tale. Orphaned in a storm, Ti Moune is adopted, re-pays her survival by saving the life of another, and learns how cruel love and life can be. Told by the gods and the islanders who believe, it’s a slice of French Antilles culture set in the Caribbean sea.

Simon Wells provides a beautiful floor map and bold island scenery at either end of the transverse stage, plus inventive “bin liner” formal party-wear that may catch on should he open a beach-shack shop somewhere. Andrew Exeter gives us storms and sunshine, but Andrew Johnson’s sound design takes longer to kick into gear, swallowing much of the early lyrics.

Lee Proud keeps the cast moving with the rhythms you would expect, yet he avoids cliché and opts for characterisation from every member of his ensemble. The car crash is neatly done (and the bed even more so), and smaller touches like the pre-show greetings and bamboo seller demonstrate thought.

Key performances from Chrissie Bhima (Ti Mourne) and Sam Tutty (Daniel) are detailed and Bhima in particular is heart-breaking.

Around them, there is remarkable work from Odelia Dizel-Cubuca as Andrea, hugely impressive Aviva Tulley (Erzule), towering connectivity with the audience from Martin Cush (Papa Ge) and notable voices every cast member – those sitting by the monkey’s seat to sing, in particular.

Lynn Ahren’s book isn’t complex, but there is charm in the episodic construction, and the lyrics are stronger. Stephen Flaherty gives a couple of strong songs, “The Human Heart” may break it, and both “Waiting For Life” and “Some Girls” are decent numbers. This isn’t Sondheim or even Boublil and Schonberg, but it’s diverting and suits this particular company well.

Probably not a show that will be presented commercially in London again, this is a rare chance to see it. Can’t make the French Antilles this year? Don’t worry! This stunning ensemble – all under 23 – bring the huge heart, warmth, rhythms, sights and sounds direct to London. The only holiday you need.

 

4 stars.

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