'Once On This Island' review – this Caribbean trip vacillates between vibrant fairy tale and grim warning

Read our three-star review of the Broadway musical Once On This Island in London, now playing at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, with performances through 10 June.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Part fairy tale, part history lesson, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical Once On This Island is deeply bound up in mythmaking: how we tell stories, and how they come to define us. It’s loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, transposed to the Caribbean island of Haiti, and aims to tackle some big topics for a 90-minute, kid-friendly show.

The main plot belongs to dark-skinned peasant girl Ti Moune, who is orphaned during a great storm – but whose life is spared by the gods. She’s then adopted by an older couple and raised in their village. When Daniel, one of the light-skinned “grands hommes” (descendants of French planters and slaves) crashes his car during another storm, she sees this as the reason she was saved, and offers the gods her life for his.

Ola Ince’s production is particularly sensitive to generational trauma and colourism. There’s an illuminating segment outlining (with the use of a giant puppet and its lolling tongue) the Haitian revolution and how colonial planters copulated with native women. Peasants like Ti Moune, we’re told, are despised by the grands hommes because they remind the latter of their humble origins – for which, in turn, the French despise this mixed-race group.

Ince also introduces a new contemporary-set framing narrative. The show opens with lighter-skinned police officers terrorising Haitian natives who are trying to sell their wares to tourists; one child is left with a bloody face. Her mother tells her Ti Moune’s story as a balm, but it’s difficult to get past that violent horror.

It makes some of the tricky elements of the main plot even harder to accept. Ti Moune sacrifices everything for Daniel before they’ve even spoken a word, and when we do get to know him, he’s callous, selfish and too easily swayed by his snobbish father. In the patronising song “Some Girls”, Daniel compares the sophisticated women you marry to the “childlike” Ti Moune, who he loves without such a commitment.

In particular, the conclusion to the tale sits uneasily between a serious message about how much progress still needs to be made to ensure racial equality, and a magical-realist fix that creates an unsatisfying happy-ever-after. Summon again that image of a Black child being beaten by a policeman, and it’s pretty clear which one feels more apt, but it’s at odds with the whimsical, Disneyfied plotting.

Gabrielle Brooks, who was such an impressive Rita Marley in Get Up, Stand Up!, is a powerful leading lady here, passionately conveying Ti Moune’s journey from restless young girl to fierce caregiver, giddy lover and then heartbroken woman. Her relationship with her adopted parents (an excellent Chris Jarman and Natasha Magigi) is beautifully heartfelt.

However, it feels like there could be a lot more joy within the fairy-tale elements. The four gods are fabulous creations, all wearing towering headwear that lights up as the night wears on, and there are charismatic performances – and mighty vocals – from Anelisa Lamola, Emilie Louise Israel, Ashley Samuels and Lejaun Sheppard.

In particular, the number “Mama Will Provide”, all about the earth’s bounty, should really explode off the stage – and be a perfect fit for Regent’s Park (where we can definitely sympathise with being at the mercy of the elements). Oddly, though, Georgie Lowe’s set is dominated by ugly industrial-looking metal columns (which sometimes light up), separating the actors from the verdant surroundings. It works for the section in the hotel, just about, but feels weirdly counterintuitive otherwise.

A shame, because Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy’s choreography is blistering and deserves a more expansive space. I particularly loved his expressive, foot-stomping ritualistic movement for the prayer numbers – reflected in a knockout solo later from Brooks, as Ti Moune performs for a stuffy crowd doing European courtly dances. And while it’s hard to buy into the hasty central romance, a steamy duet between the lovers helps enormously.

The band give us a vibrant rendering of the calypso, soca and reggae-packed score, although sound levels (and some thick French accents) mean a good chunk of the lyrics are lost. So, a slightly uneven opening to the Park’s 2023 summer season, moodier in both tone and weather than might be expected, but it’s still well worth a trip to this thought-provoking island.

Once On This Island is at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre through 10 June. Book Once On This Island tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Gabrielle Brooks in Once On This Island (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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