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Review: Once On This Island (Southwark Playhouse)

The musical returns in a new production by the British Theatre Academy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Once on This Island
© Eliza Wilmot

Going to see BTA's Once On This Island is like stepping into a time machine and being given a glimpse at the future of musical theatre – seeing the stars of tomorrow tearing up the Southwark Playhouse stage. What a future we have in store if this press night performance is anything to go by.

It's been a little while since Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Olivier Award-winning show has been seen on UK shores, and it's hard to imagine why – with a brisk runtime, a raft of catchy tunes and a pertinent message about segregation and the dangers of male complacency, it's a musical for the moment.

The plot (based on Rosa Guy's My Love, My Love, which in turn is a retelling of The Little Mermaid) is a bit of a weird one – one of those classic girl-meets-boy, boy-rejects-girl, girl-turns-into-tree romantic tragedies. Sometimes you aren't really sure why Ti Moune, the island native and main protagonist, falls for and nurses back to health a beleaguered rich floppy-haired kid Daniel, who just has a bit too much of a slimey vibe to him. But it's helped by some utterly glorious numbers, especially "Waiting for Life", "Mama Will Provide" and "The Human Heart", all earning thunderous applause.

While the musical itself is a pretty cracking ride, what really stands out in this production are the central performances. Aviva Tulley's Euralie provides a tender yet powerful "The Human Heart", plus Jonathan Chen owns the stage in "Mama Will Provide". But Chrissie Bhima steals the show as Ti Moune – once she's absolutely nailed a top C Sharp, it's hard not to be on her side throughout. Bhima is a name that people should be watching out for.

The cast whirl and throw around the blocks and props of Simon Wells' versatile set, while the narrow traverse stage doesn't stop dazzling and at times viscerally physical choreography from Lee Proud (who also directs). With its constant jubilation, you do feel however as though a lot of the production glosses over the darker tone that can bubble underneath the piece.

Nevertheless, this is an utterly spellbinding revival of a glorious show, and a chance to get the first glimpse at some of the talents of tomorrow.