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Once on This Island at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre review: a Little Mermaid musical of real force and verve

Gabrielle Brooks and the ensemble of Once on This Island  (Marc Brenner)
Gabrielle Brooks and the ensemble of Once on This Island (Marc Brenner)

Goodness me, there are some powerful voices in Ola Ince’s striking revival of this 1990 Broadway musical, which puts a Caribbean spin on the story of The Little Mermaid (well-timed, since the highly-anticipated Disney live-action film of the same tale is released next week). The tale of Ti Moune, a foundling peasant girl who falls for one of the wealthy, lighter-skinned “grand hommes” of her island (identified here as Haiti) is a simple one, bordering on the simplistic; it’s billed as suitable for children over 10.

But it’s told in just 90 minutes with real force and verve. The long-running composing and writing partnership of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty has stripped the narrative back to basics here while packing the score with an array of belting anthems, insistent rhythms and sly wit.

Ince’s production is similarly pared down, with a minimal set by Georgia Lowe. Featuring a recessed pit and slim scaffolding towers, it avoids sunshine-island cliches, but showcases glorious lighting and costumes.

Among many stirring performances, Gabrielle Brooks – who played a knockout Rita Marley in Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical in the West End – once again proves herself a devastating emotional and vocal powerhouse in the lead role. Even though on opening night she was battling the glacial temperatures that traditionally greet the first production at the Open Air Theatre each year.

Stephenson Ardern-Sodjie and Gabrielle Brooks in Once on This Island (Marc Brenner)
Stephenson Ardern-Sodjie and Gabrielle Brooks in Once on This Island (Marc Brenner)

Myth, religion, and history are entwined here. The peasants work the land and the sea, and dance “just to stay alive… what else is there to do”? Meanwhile the “grand hommes” – the descendents of children forcibly sired on the slaves they owned – are the urban aristocracy.

When princeling Daniel (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje, giving off the smarmy vibes of Succession’s Tom Wambsgans) nearly dies in a car crash, Ti Moune makes a bargain with the gods to save his life. Later, her healing takes an erotic turn. For all this, she pays a harsh price.

The opening and closing scenes set in roughly contemporary times – where Ti Moune’s sacrifice is repurposed as something ultimately hopeful rather than bleak – don’t entirely convince. But the show allows little time for reflection and the score is insistent: the song Pray in particular has a hectic, driven pulse behind it, while Mama Will Provide is an exuberant celebration sung by Anelisa Lamola as the earth goddess Asaka.

Forever Yours and Some Girls are lethally ominous. Ince stages an ostensibly light-hearted historical ditty with huge, carnival-style body parts that make the legacy of slavery wittily, starkly clear. A tongue snaking from the lips of French colonialist Armand’s giant paper head snares a black woman. A mixed-heritage son tumbles out of giant, splayed brown legs beneath a stained tricolore. It’s horrible and funny at the same time.

As a reappraisal of a classic, potentially kitschy musical, Ince’s production ranks alongside Jamie Lloyd’s dazzling, revisionist Evita at this venue in 2019. Seriously, when did the Open Air Theatre get so cool? Once On This Island is a brisk, energising piece of theatre. It’ll be even better on a hot night.

Regents Park Open Air Theatre, to June 10; buy tickets here