Yarico is a new musical showing at the London Theatre Workshop, based on a story that inspired the anti-slavery movement. In his book True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, published in 1657, Richard Ligon recorded that a young Amerindian woman, Yarico, saved the life of a British merchant with whom she then fell in love; he, however, sold her into slavery. It’s a shocking and fascinating tale, and this production with music by James McConnell, lyrics by Paul Leigh and a book by Carl Miller, tells it memorably.
The simple staging is effective, with a black surround and sticks of cane evoking the landscape. I really liked the cast: Liberty Buckland is superb as the title character, a young woman with a zest for life and a desire to explore; she is sympathetic, has a strong stage presence and possesses a lovely voice. Alex Spinney has a difficult job as the rather unsympathetic Thomas Inkle, and at times he seems a bit innocent for the role he has to play, but he does a good job. Of the supporting cast, one of my favourite performers was Tori Allen-Martin who played Yarico’s friend Nono. She did really well in her lighthearted role and had a magnetic stage presence. I liked that the production employed colour-blind casting: it could have been difficult to portray who was who, but the costumes removed this difficulty, and I thought the use of the same actors to play Yarico’s tribe, the plantation slaves and the wealthy landowners emphasised the essential “human-ness” of each group.
The story is a difficult one, as the central “love affair” is over almost before it has begun. The writers have tackled the story of Yarico being sold into slavery by making her lover Inkle not a duplicitous out-and-out racist, but a compulsive gambler who loses her in a bet in the heat of the moment. It’s still a pretty rotten thing to do, though (putting it mildly!), and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found myself hoping that Yarico wouldn’t forgive him. He does get the opportunity to redeem himself later – I won’t say more.
In general I enjoyed the music – some of the songs weren’t particularly memorable, but I enjoyed the use of percussion in the score. A handful of songs were especial highlights, most of which came in the second act. “Chocolate” was a biting satirical meditation on the plantation owners’ use of slaves as mistresses, while “Take A Step” was a hypnotic, absorbing duet between two of the slaves. “The Things We Carry With Us” and “Spirit Eternal” were rousing, memorable show tunes.
Overall, despite its flaws, I really enjoyed Yarico and I hope it has a life beyond the fringe – it would be great to see it tweaked, developed and shown in a larger venue.