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Once On This Island

August 4, 2019 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆    Poignant energy

Edinburgh Tabernacle (Venue 120): Sat 3– Sat 10 Aug 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is real emotional pull to Forth Children’s Theatre’s Once On This Island at the Edinburgh Tabernacle. Director Alex Gordon has fashioned a production that relies on careful staging and a fidelity to the story that makes for an expressive, impressive production.

The musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on a novel by Rosa Guy and set on the French Antilles, is perhaps not the best known, but its themes are timeless and instantly recognisable from the dawn of drama. It also has a collection of songs that are largely attractive rather than showstoppers, but are all the better for moving the narrative forward.

Eilidh West as Ti Moune. Pic: Mark Gorman

A society is depicted that is split between a dirt-poor peasant class and a socially remote upper class, and where belief in the gods governs much of society. These divinities are a large part of the action, originally stranding a young orphan girl named Ti Moune in a tree, and later contriving a meeting between a grown Ti Moune and Daniel, an injured rich boy.

But the fates around these parts are ruthless – not least because of deities who act more like the vengeful gods of classical antiquity than the Iwa of Vodou. It is clear from the beginning that while Ti Moune’s love for Daniel is reciprocated, this does not mean that he is committed to a shared future across social boundaries.

Although there is a great deal of narration, often performed by the gods or other named roles, there is no doubt that Eilidh West holds the production together as Ti Moune.

Her acting is seemingly effortless and emotionally spot on, backed up by some excellent singing. What is most noteworthy is the way she concentrates on telling the story through song, rather than showing off or indulging in unnecessary power or volume.

sympathetic

This is echoed by the rest of the principals, with Grace McKinlay and Will Rowse as her adoptive parents also turning in sympathetic, unselfish performances that are entirely in the service of the narrative.

A scene from Once On This Island. Pic: Mark Gorman

In a relationship that is portrayed as unequal on a number of levels, Cameron Seath has much less to do than West, and his Daniel starts off more tentatively. However, there is something appealing and utterly believable about his stiff-backed, uncomprehending following of his upbringing.

Emile Jardine and Oscar Brennan, as the other representatives of the moneyed classes, are similarly glacial, with Jardine particularly impressive. Emma Swain, meanwhile, is excellent as the younger version of Ti Moune.

Entirely appropriately, the supernatural beings are much more expansive. Moray McConnachie’s death demon Papa Ge is magnetically brooding and sinister, while Laura Johnston’s water goddess Agwe has a suitably otherworldly tinge. Olivia Steele (Erzulie, goddess of love) has a winning ebullience, while Gracie Briggs gives earth mother Asaka genuine vitality and warmth.

The Supernatural Beings. Pic: Mark Gorman

The chorus are used very well by director Gordon and choreographer Jude McLellan. Good use of varying sizes of ensemble, effective dance numbers, and some clever costume changes, add to the wonderfully clear and limpid storytelling in a production that fairly flies along – often ninety minutes straight through without an interval is far too much, but not here.

There are occasional problems with the use of a traverse stage – some dialogue gets lost when performers have their backs to sections of the audience, but in a largely sung-through work this is less important. Smooth technical work means that the songs are beautifully audible – with MDs Eilidh Park and Fraser Jamieson, and the band, providing sterling support.

delicacy and sensitivity

It would certainly be possible for a production of this musical, so far from its geographical and cultural roots, to be troubling. However, there is considerable delicacy and sensitivity throughout, with the only notes of faux-tropicalia come from an overuse of whatever makes the keyboard sound like a marimba.

There are odd moments which fail to convince. That old Scottish reserve means that not all of the sun-soaked emotion rings true – although the religious fatalism probably does. Overall, however, there is a real drive and confidence to this production that is extremely impressive.

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Edinburgh Tabernacle (Venue 120); 41-42 Inverleith Gardens, EH3 5PR
Saturday 3 – Saturday 10 August 2019
Daily (not Sun 4) at 7.30 pm; Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/once-on-this-island
Company website: https://forthchildrenstheatre.wordpress.com
Facebook: @forthchildrenstheatre

A Scene from Once On This Island. Pic: Mark Gorman

ENDS

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