An award winning creative team that includes …
… set designer Georgia Lowe, costume designer Melissa Simon Hartman, and choreographers Kenrick “H20” Sandy and Niquelle La Touche have come together under the direction of Ola Ince to kick off Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s summer season.
Their collaboration is a revival production of Once on This Island which tells the mythical story of a girl named Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks) who has been saved from a disastrous storm by the gods and taken in by elderly peasants. As she grows, Ti Moune craves adventure (waiting for life to begin) and her prayers are soon answered in the most unexpected way; setting her on a journey of self discovery where she ultimately dares to prove that love is stronger than death.
The musical finds its setting in the Caribbean Island of Haiti and is reminiscent of a Caribbean folktale. As an adaptation of the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, Once on This Island is not an original concept, actually finding its basis in The Little Mermaid. In spite of these influences and origins, this story is no fairytale and similarities between Ti Moune and Ariel reach no further than two strong willed teenagers who fall in love with men who are outside of their perimeters. What is unique to Once on This Island is its exploration of colonialism and the way in which the production uses colourism and classism to depict this. The island inhabited is made up of both peasants and aristocrats, though divided by their prejudice, the two do not mix. The peasants are darker skinned and treated cruelly whilst the lighter skinned people are the aristocrats on the island. In this way the production exercises colourism as opposed to racism to showcase the affects of Haiti’s colonisation by the French.
Lowe’s set design is simplistic, abandoning set pieces and only utilising a few minimalist props and scaffolding ladders around a recessed stage. Instead of the theatrics of your typical West End production, this revival relies heavily on its cast to create its necessary island atmosphere. Everything from the coos of the birds to rhythmic dances and mythical gods are presented through the ensemble cast and the use of great costume designs to the credit of Sandy and Simon-Hartman. The gods which serve as integral pieces of the story are vividly dressed to reflect their functions and Simon-Hartmans creativity shines through here with the exuberant dress of Asaka (mother of the earth), Agwé (god of water), Erzulie (goddess of love) and Papa Ge (demon of death).
The influence of nature weaves through the entire show. Regents Theatre’s outdoor setting really works for a production like this where the open, natural surroundings on a hot summer’s day would be complementary to the piece. Their is good direction from Ince and one scene in particular which delivered clever use of puppetry as a history lesson and exposition of the aristocrats which ties in with the theme of colonialism. In addition to Lowe’s stripped back set, special affects of fire and water were weaved in, but even this didn’t do enough to elevate the production to West End status.
Though off to a slow start, the plot of Once on This Island is set in motion when Ti Moune finds Daniel (Stephenson Ardern-Sodge) – a bloodied and dying aristocrat who has been injured in a car accident. Against her adopted parents wishes, Ti Moune cares for and nurses him – going as far as offering her life to Papa Ge in exchange for his. (Why she feels so strongly for a man she doesn’t yet know we never discover). When Daniel is taken back to his side of the island Ti Moune journeys after him believing that her love for him is mutual and the gods have destined for them to be together.
Most of the actors do a good job of portraying their characters. Criticism here is that the accents were strong but not always authentic to Haitians. This combined with the outdoor noise often made it difficult to understand what’s being said and with a story that’s already not straight forward and script heavy its easy to miss information. The star of the show is Olivier nominee Gabrielle Brooks who you notice the moment she opens her mouth. The power and depth in her voice wowed as she belted over percussions and rhythms seemingly with ease. Her emotional performance as a girl with a huge heart that was matched only by the size of her hope was touching and caused you to root for Ti Moune despite her questionable choices.
Though each song was well sung, and there were some beautiful harmonies throughout, there was not one song that I wanted to hear again and none that left a lasting impression. In all honesty it was 90 minutes that could easily have been forgotten had I not been so appalled by the show’s ending where instead of answers to the protagonist’s ill fate we are given calypso rhythms and expected to dance off the tragic circumstances that have just played out. Once you get over the shocking finale you quickly realise that in the end powerful voices, compelling acting, intricate choreography and vivid costuming couldn’t make up for what this musical lacked in story and consequently everything else suffered.