Once on This Island, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Recommended


Once on This Island

3 out of 5 stars

Ola Ince’s exuberant production does a fine job of papering over the cracks in this Caribbean-set musical curio


Time Out says

A sung-through musical fable about love and colourism on a Hispaniola-alike isle in the Antilles, ‘Once on This Island’ traces the doomed romance between Ti Moune – from the island’s ’black as night’ peasant population – and Daniel Beauxhomme, one of its aristocratic, light-skinned ‘grand hommes’ whose slave ancestors mingled with white French planters. 

Let’s be honest, it now feels somewhat iffy that this was a subject white songwriting duo Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty decided they should explore (even if it was adapted from Black author Rosa Guy’s novel ‘My Love, My Love’, itself based on ‘The Little Mermaid’). 

But 1990 was a very different time, and let’s not virtue police ‘Once On This Island’ into the ground when a series of Black creatives are making efforts to reclaim it – a Disney+ version helmed by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu is in the works, while our own rising star director Ola Ince has tackled it as this year’s Open Air Theatre season opener.

Why persist with it? Well for starters the sung-through score is heartstoppingly lush, a joyous musical tide that runs through the night like a river of glowing sound. You can roll your eyes at the abundant use of calypso drums, but the fact is they sound wonderful. Running at 90 minutes, with little dialogue, it’s short for a musical but long for a concept album, which in some ways is what it more closely resembles.

Ince’s production has a hyperreal vividness that matches the radiant surge of the tunes. Georgia Lowe’s set is minimal and pared back (albeit with a couple of late surprises). But Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costumes are a riot, from the brightly clad souvenir hawkers in the present-day-set opening scene, to the quartet of extravagantly made-up gods who amuse themselves by toying with the life of Gabrielle Brooks’s innocent Ti Moune by setting up her ill-starred relationship with Stephenson Ardern-Sodje’s Daniel.

In other words, you can see why it gets revived still. But for all its charms, ‘Once on This Island’ feels caught between a Disney-ish over-simplicity and a desire to say something a bit more profound about class and race. There are some stupendous singing voices in the mix: Gabrielle Brooks gives the role of Ti Moune real heart and guts, while Anelisa Lamola’s powerhouse vocals as the goddess Asaka add a welcome fire to the chilly May night. But they never really quite felt like characters, or certainly not nuanced ones. You don’t have to write it off as problematic to find it essentially a bit trite. But the score is glorious, and the talent on display here is undeniable.


£25-£65. Runs 1hr 30min
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