Southwark Playhouse, London – until 31 August 2019
The British Theatre Academy’s production of the Caribbean-inspired Little Mermaid adaptation, Once On This Island is an enchanting show with dynamic, heart-wrenching performances, energy in spades and a glorious uptempo score.
Through beautiful harmonies and high-intensity choreography, the young cast brings sunlight to rainy London and infuses a gust of tropical warmth into the magical story and score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
Once On This Island tells the legend of Ti Moune, a young orphaned peasant girl raised by Tonton and Euralie, who falls in love with a boy from a wealthy family on the other side of the island, Daniel. Guided by four Gods, Ti Moune rescues Daniel from a life threatening car crash and nurtures him back to health. However, though they may be divided by only a few miles, they are worlds apart and after promises made to the Gods, Ti Moune must see whether love can conquer all, including death.
At the heart of it, Once On This Island is a much needed delivery of the message of the need for inclusion for people from all walks of life. In a world doused in prejudice, where literal walls are being built and we are continually bombarded with stories of segregation, it’s crucial that we speak loudly and take a stand to highlight the necessity for equality. The diverse BTA cast does an outstanding job of this and delivers the heart-warming but emotionally raw tale with grace and cohesiveness you would expect to see from older, full-time West End performers.
The BTA team has done an outstanding job of bringing the Tony Award-winning show to life in the pretty intimate space of the Southwark Playhouse. An ever versatile venue, it’s fantastic to see it transformed to house a traverse stage where the performers integrate themselves into the audience, and interact as though they are locals wandering the streets.
Lee Proud and Harrison Clark’s dynamic choreography fills the space and works with the Calypso sounds and rhythms to create an upbeat party feel, as well as highlighting the more deeply emotive parts of the story. Thanks to the ensemble, there isn’t a moment that feels under-energised and it’s both enthralling and authentic to watch.
In the role of Ti Moune, eighteen year old Chrissie Bhima is otherworldly. Maintaining a poise and depth of someone much older, whilst imbuing the character with an innocence that draws the audience to her; she is a certain star in our midst. Bhima’s killer vocals earn rapturous applause after her first solo and set the tone for the nuanced but electric performance she continues to give throughout.
Aviva Tulley as Erzulie is clearly born to perform and she brings the ethereal Goddess of Love to life with a vocal and physical warmth that calms the room. On the other hand, Jonathan Chen is the embodiment of energy as he brings Asaka to life. As the other gods, Kyle Birch (Agwe) and Martin Cush (Papa Ge) embody their elements well.
Sam Tutty is charismatic and sincere as Daniel, who shows genuine heartbreak as the pair struggle through their relationship, whilst, Marie-Anna Caufour oozes affection alongside divine vocals as Ti Moune’s adopted mother Euralie. Special notice must go to Elliot Gooch who plays Armand among a variety of ensemble characters and stands out throughout thanks to his energy, facial expressions and witty interactions with both the cast and the audience. At the core, this is really a piece about community so it’s a winning factor that the ensemble are so strong. The tight knit group work incredibly hard throughout and are consistently strong. Mention goes to Ella Biddlecombe and Grace Venus who draw the eye throughout.
Despite a few technical issues at the start with sound, the cast’s energised portrayal of this provoking, mystical piece keeps the audience in the palms of their hands, and Simon Wells’ simplistic but detailed set transports us to an island where magic really happens. The sweet story directed with a winning touch by Lee Proud, alongside vast vocal talent and and an authenticity that courses through, is a must see show this summer.
photo credit: Eliza Wilmot