Review: Once on this Island, Open Air Theatre

Once on This Island proves a chilly rather than carnivalesque experience at the Open Air Theatre

“From bad blood to worse”

Given its notices (both Tony and Olivier Award wins and multiple nominations), I was expecting my first experience of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on This Island to be a glorious way to open this summer’s programme at the Open Air Theatre. But just as we couldn’t rely on the British weather to quite justify al fresco theatre without woolly jumpers, so too was I disappointed by a show that barely seems worth reviving.

Based on a 1985 Rosa Guy novel which itself draws on The Little Mermaid, it is a strange and slight show even as it deals with love and colourism, its seemingly family-friendly nature blunting the edges of its painfully dated storytelling. Set on the island of Haiti, we get to see the telling of a child’s bedtime tale, of the doomed love story between peasant girl Ti Moune and high-born Daniel and the gods that watch over them (and sometimes intervene).

Ola Ince’s production certainly reckons with the thorny issues of racism, colourism and the long-trailing effects of colonialism (Ti Moune is dark-skinned, an indigenous islander; Daniel is lighter-skinned and mixed-race, descendant of the French coloniser) and has fun with the idea of the gods. But there’s little she can do about the misogyny of the way the storyline goes (there’s another woman…) and ultimately finishes (there’s…a tree).

The enormously talented company just about keep the show afloat. Gabrielle Brooks excels as Ti Moune, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje’s Daniel has all the right seductive cruelty and Anelisa Lamola’s goddess Asaka is the pick of the pantheon. But Georgia Lowe’s set feels strangely stark in these sylvan surroundings and though well-performed under Chris Poon’s musical direction, Flaherty’s score rarely feels like a genuine celebration of the Caribbean.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Marc Brenner
Once on this Island is booking at Open Air Theatre until 10th June

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *