With its themes of rags to riches, curses passed down through generations and convention-defying love across a class divide, the story – based on Rosa Guy’s Caribbean-set retelling of The Little Mermaid – seems straight out of a Disney movie (a fact not lost on the production behemoth, which snapped up the film rights in 2020). While Ince’s production is playfully directed and performed with gusto by a hard-working ensemble, the story unfortunately bears the Disney hallmark of wrapping up matters too quickly and glossing over some serious ‘sorry, what?’ plot discrepancies.
Anelisa Lamola (Asaka), Gabrielle Brooks (Ti Moune) and ensemble in Once On This Island. Photo: Marc Brenner
It unfolds on designer Georgia Lowe’s sparse stage, which leaves the conjuring of the island largely to our imaginations and a few nimble props. Tall, black ladders either side of the stage substitute for palm trees, and clusters of bamboo, each manned by a performer, represent the fields toiled by the island’s peasants.
The story-within-a-story is preceded by a poignant opening scene with beach traders selling sunglasses and t-shirts before being aggressively chased away by police protecting tourists over their own people. It’s a shame this idea isn’t circled back to, as it could lace the story with more contemporary relevance.
We meet our heroine Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks, with a voice and smile to charm a thousand Beauxhommes) as a child (played on press night by a cherubic Olivia St Louis and a show-stealing Nielle Springer) who has survived the flood which wiped out her village. To her god-fearing, folklore-regaling community, Ti Moune’s survival must mean the gods have saved her for a higher purpose, so when the car of Daniel Beauxhomme, a young grande homme, crashes during a storm, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to nurse him back to health. Cue a palace break in, a blossoming romance, a bitter rejection at a society ball and a resolution which doesn’t quite serve justice to the impressionable do-gooder who has risked everything for love.
Stephenson Ardern-Sodjie (Daniel) and Gabrielle Brooks (Ti Moune) in Once On This Island. Photo: Marc Brenner
Still, Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s songs ensure the show remains up-beat for the most part. The staccato number ‘Some Say’ captures the superstitions of the island, its words thwacking every beat persuasively. Natasha Magigi singing ‘Mama Will Provide’ as Euralie is another zealous highlight. A percussion-heavy band evokes the rhythmic music of the island, while twinkly sound effects lend the show its fairy tale feel.
Kendrick ‘H20’ Sandy’s choreography complements the score, with the chorus yo-yoing between tribal and street dance routines. In one visually powerful scene, the ensemble come together to portray the flood which ravished the village.
In another inspired moment, Ince has Daniel’s forefather somersault onto stage as he’s birthed from a giant pair of legs – part of a puppet representing the overbearing presence of French colonists.
It’s the sudden, unsatisfactory ending that lets the story down. Sure, the curse is broken, and love between classes and races is allowed, but it comes at a high price. As the cast cheerily sing the finale number ‘Why We Tell This Story’, about their island where workers work and the rich play, there’s a sense that while the curse has been broken, not much has changed.
|What||Once On This Island, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review|
|Where||Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, Inner Cir, Westminster, London, NW1 4NU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Regent's Park (underground)|
10 May 23 – 10 Jun 23, 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|