Once on This Island by Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens. Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 to 31 August. 5*****. William Russell

Once on this Island
Music by Stephen Flaherty. Book & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
Southwark Playhouse, the Large, 77-85 Newington Causeway, Southwark SE1 6BD to 31 August 2019.
Tues – Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sat 3.30pm & Sun 2.30pm & 5.30pm.
Runs 85 Mins. No interval.
TICKETS: 0207 407 0234.

Review: William Russell 14 August

This island in the sun musical pulses with energy and the youthful cast under the inventive, inspired and energetic direction of Lee Proud, who also choreographed the show, rise to the occasion. It should rank with one of the best things the British Musical Academy has done, which is no mean achievement as the standard is high – most of the time. It is staged traverse fashion, which means the audience is on either side of the acting area so that events flow past in a flash as a storm leaves orphan Ti Moune, played on press night by an enchanting Kassidy Taylor, stranded on the shore. She is rescued, with some reluctance, by a middle aged couple, Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian, well done by Marie-Anna Caufour and Andre Bewick, and grows up to have magical powers of healing put to good use when local nearly white rich boy Daniel has an accident while driving in the countryside.
They fall in love, but the Caribbean island is class ridden – there are the nearly white folks who run it and the really coloured folks who do the work and the twain do not unite in holy matrimony – and Daniel also has a promised bride to be. The gods, who interrupt spectacularly from time to time, are not best pleased. It all ends badly for Ti Moune as far as true love is concerned, but she is turned in to a marvellous tree by the gods in an inspired scene involving a step ladder, a white dress and lots of ribbons. One does not always need expensive sets and video illusions to make theatrical magic.
The grown up Ti Moune is played and sung by Chrissie Bhima most affectingly and she manages to be just what one would expect Kassidy Taylor’s Ti Moune to become, which is quite an achievement. All too often in plays where people age you know that there is no way Little A could ever have become Big A. Sam Tutty as Daniel reveals a very sweet light tenor voice in Forever Yours, his duet with Ti Moune, and manages to make a bit of shit boy trapped by the facts of life in the society he belongs to appealing. This island Juliet needs a Romeo worth getting after all.
The opening storm – Why We Dance – starts off a little shouty with a steel band plonking away noisily and possibly goes on just a little too long, but once the story starts to be told with the next number things soar and never come back to earth. Given that it is an ensemble show everyone works all the time doing whatever the director wants and the programme, while printing their photographs, does not identify who played what so no more testimonials as to excellence – they are all good and carry out the choreography’s considerable demands splendidly. The production could not be bettered – although to say it is up to West End standards is a back handed compliment given some West End standards these days. It is well dressed, well performed student theatre at its very best staged by a director and choreographer on top of his game. The traverse layout is always a challenge for a director and Proud copes very well with keeping the action in front of all of the audience – effectively the cast play to both sides of the theatre most of the time, which is hard to achieve. The use of the step ladder worked nicely although it is a bit of a cliche prop and one has seen it here before. But for once the sound seemed under control. Voices can get drowned at Southwark by the band at the best of times but lines came across clearly, although it could possibly depend on where one is sitting how well. I had no problems.
This 1990 musical is a gentle affair, its verdict on colonialism tempered by the fact that the tale being told is a legend rather than a piece of social commentary.
But collectors of musicals should besiege the Playhouse because this imaginative staging deserves real audiences and not just uncritical mums, dads and friends of the family applauding anything that twitches, although this time round their unabashed delight at the performances and the standing ovation at the end were both fully deserved.

Ti Moune: Chrissie Bhima.
Euralie: Marie-Anna Caufour.
Ton Ton: Andre Beswick.
Daniel: Sam Tutty.
Armand: Elliot Gooch.
Andrea: Odelia Dizel-Cabuca.
Papa Ge: Martin Cush.
Asaka Jonathen Chen.
Erzule: Aviva Tullet.
Agwe: Kyle Birch.
Little Ti Moune: Kassidy Taylor/Roisin Cix.
Ensemble: Ella Biddlecombe; Eithne Cox; Naomi Alade; Nesah Gonzales; Grace Venus; Maddison Tyson; Tommy Robinson; Kinglsey De Costa.

Director & Choreographer: Lee Proud.
Musical Director: Chris Ma.
Designer: Simon Wells.
Lighting Designer: Andrew Exeter.
Sound Designer: Andrew Johnson.
Production photographs: Eliza Wilmot.
Vocal Coach: Steph Pryne.
Assistants to Lee Proud: Charlotte Gale; Harrison Clark.

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