You may not think model Jodie Kidd and her father John to be typical theatre producers, but with family ties to Barbados they have chosen to bring the anti-slavery narrative of Yarico to the London stage. The story is a compelling one: a British merchant, Thomas Inkle, is shipwrecked on an island where he is saved by an Amerindian woman, Yarico – the only member of her tribe to speak English thanks to her interest in Shakespeare. The two fall in love, but fate draws them apart as Yarico is sold into slavery in Barbados. Loosely based on a factual account from the seventeenth century, this musical adaptation has been ten years in the making, but suffers from an inconsistent tone.
It is a show of two halves. The first is overly pacey, cramming in far too much plot for what is, essentially, exposition for the events of the second half. For a story on slavery, there is a light-hearted feel to the events that feels a little jarring. Some comedy is welcome, but this feels like a swashbuckler pitched somewhere between Pirates of the Carribean and Pocahontas. It certainly has an epic, cinematic feel but it’s too big for the limited space of the London Theatre Workshop, most of which is taken up by the extensive percussion of the band.
Alex Spinney stands out early on for his performance as Inkle, offering a beautifully lyrical tenor, and Tori Allen-Martin is hilarious as Yarico’s tribe friend Nono. Yet the girl meets boy forbidden love story feels too familiar and the often comical plot is presented with a Hollywood-esque sheen. What’s needed is a greater grasp of the local ethnicity in both the music and the acting; the varying languages of the characters are cleverly depicted despite the whole cast speaking English, but it lacks authenticity.
Thankfully that comes in the second half. Here the narrative is altogether more intimate, with the focus on Yarico and her plight to free her fellow slaves. There is some spirited music, such as “Give Me My Name” and “Spirit Eternal” that allow for some wonderfully rousing ensemble harmonies and choreography to match the percussive music. This also allows the performers to settle further into their roles. Liberty Buckland eventually stands strong as the tragic Yarico, whilst Keisha Amponsa Banson provides plenty of tension as her rival Jessica, and Suzanne Ahmet proves vocally solid in a variety of roles.
There remain some missteps, however. For every authentic musical number there’s a Disney-esque ballad that undermines the raw grit of the central love story, whilst the slightly racial connotations of the song “Chocolate” (in which the characters sing of their love for the drink) are a little uncomfortable to watch. And whilst there remains some comedy, the second half tries too hard to educate its (entirely white) audience: “The Same And Not The Same” is accompanied by a public whipping of a black and a white character that’s heavy-handed. In trying to ensure the central message isn’t lost amongst romantic slush, the show becomes somewhat preoccupied with preaching - to an extent this is a black story dumbed down for a white audience, just as Yarico is presented reciting Shakespeare for her British owners.
Yarico is far from a finished product – the producers have admitted as such. There is clearly some work to be done, but even in its current state this is a promising production with some glorious ensemble singing, a talented cast and a raw love story at its core.
Watch: Yarico runs at the London Theatre Workshop until 14th March.