Once On This Island

Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy
Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and Hackney Empire co-production
Hackney Empire
(2009)

Production photo

This musical, which won an Olivier for an earlier production, has its roots in Hans Anderson's story of the Little Mermaid, transposed to the island of Haiti and told apparently to cheer up a little girl orphaned in a hurricane. Its revival is a co-production between Hackney and Birmingham Rep and Nottingham Playhouse.

It's a tale of young love, of race and class with Shyko Amos's charming Ti Moune the dark-skinned orphan peasant girl falling for rich Creole planter's pale-skinned son Daniel (Wayne Perrey) whom she saves from an otherwise fatal car crash by promising death demon Papa Ge (bendy-limbed Jo Servi) her soul.

It's a strange one to tell a frightened little girl. Would she really find it an upbeat ending to be cast aside by the guy you adore and turned into a tree that takes care of children? I don't think so, though the music and the splendid cast do their best to make it seem it is!

It is a show with enormous vitality, operatic in the scale of its music and with some stunning choreography from Deidre Lovell. Several of its production team have worked with director Susie McKenna on her pantos at this venue and they have produced the same vibrancy here, fewer sets but even more colourful - too colourful at times with twinkling-star skies frequently glowing crimson or purple, and sudden changes of lighting states for added emphasis in danger of going OTT - and some witty costuming (Lotte Collett), especially for the gods: exuberant Sharon D Clarke as Asaka (Mother Earth), dynamic Johnny Amobi as Agwe (God of Water) and lovely Lorna Brown as Erzulie (Goddess of Love) as well as skeletal Papa Ge.

Melanie La Barrie and Mensah Bediako make a delightful pair of foster parents for the little girl (Rianna Prince at the performance I saw I think, but Yasmin Prince and Tranae Richards share the role with her), with Robert Grose as an ancestor of Daniel and Yaa as the rich girl who is his bride. They are all billed as 'starring' in the show, a practice that makes the word lose its meaning, especially in something which is such an ensemble piece, but this whole cast certainly have star quality and McKenna gets performances from them that make a rather thinly plotted show enormously enjoyable. It would be even better if you didn't have so often to guess at what is going. Heavy Haitian accents and heavy-handed sound design distort the voices of performers, most of whom give the impression they could fill even this big house without a mike, and make many of the numbers and some of the dialogue barely intelligible - or perhaps its just that my ears won't take that volume and distortion. Even that didn't stop the audience having a good time, strangely so perhaps when its message appears to be 'Don't be uppity black girl and if you're very good and keep your place the gods might let you be a children's nurse' - and that's not presented as an ironic warning either!

At Hackney until 16th August 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton