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The Theatreguide.London Review

Once On This Island
Hackney Empire       Summer 2009

This colourful Caribbean-flavoured musical, a modest Broadway hit in 1990 and Olivier winner in London in 1994, is given a medium-scale production by Susie McKenna of the Hackney Empire that exactly fits its delicacy and its charm.

Based on a novel by Rosa Guy, the show has book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, the pair who would go on to write the best American musical of the 1990s, Ragtime.

It is set on a Caribbean island (identified in the programme as Haiti but I don't think ever named in the show) divided between rich light-skinned Creoles and poor darker-skinned villagers.

One day the gods amuse themselves by sending a rich boy to crash his car and be tended by a poor girl, to see if her love can conquer prejudice and even death. (I won't tell you if it does, except to say that the ending is emotionally satisfying and only leaves a few loose ends unaccounted for.)

The story is presented as a fairy tale told to a child frightened by a hurricane, adding to the attractive myth- and fable-like air.

Indeed, there is a great deal of professionalism and sophistication in this show, devoted to creating the impression of naive simplicity. The songs naturally have a traditional island flavour, but they are all very carefully constructed for theatrical efficiency and effect.

One that begins as a satirical picture of the island's rich community morphs into a telling condemnation of their bigotry, while 'Ti Moune,' the girl's farewell to her parents as she goes to tend the boy, replaces what could have been pages of dialogue, and the chorus's 'Some Say' covers reams of exposition while also sustaining the sense of magical story-telling.

Only one or two songs feel like filler or, as with the inspirational 'Human Heart,' like an out-take from The Lion King.

Too grand a production, in the Cameron Mackintosh mode, would drown thef ragile and delicate story, and too small-scale a staging would not do justice to the exotic and colourful setting. Director McKenna and designer Lotte Collett have found exactly the right balance, with only one or two moments, like the dance number 'Mama Will Provide,' betraying a wish to be bigger than this staging allows them.

Shyko Amos is attractive and always sympathetic as the heroine, Sharon D. Clarke warm and motherly as the earth goddess, and Jo Servi powerful as the death demon.

For those who prefer their musicals warm and delicate, rather than big and brassy, Once On This Island is a thoroughly satisfying choice.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Once On The Island - Hackney Empire Theatre 2009


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