I’ve long said that once is not enough for Once, the stage version of the 2006 Irish indie movie that transferred from Broadway and is now in its second year at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre (and in its third at Broadway’s Bernard Jacobs).
As much as I’ve loved it from the first time I saw it in its original off-Broadway incarnation at New York Theatre Workshop in December 2011, I’m still (happily) surprised that it has lasted this long. It was never a sure bet, especially in London where it was a slow burn after it first opened, and rumours circulated widely (or at least in Baz Bamigboye’s weekly Daily Mail column) that its West End home might be available for other shows.
But just as the show itself is a slow burn on its audience, gradually taking hold on its emotions until it simply doesn’t let them go, so the show was also a slow burn at the box office: this is one of those shows where a producer who believed in the show simply kept faith with it – until it took hold itself. It helps, of course, that the lead producer in this case was Barbara Broccoli, heir to the Bond franchise and co-producer of the films with her half-brother Michael G Wilson, himself also on the above-the-title producer billing for Once. So she has deep pockets. But even more importantly, a deeper belief in the show that she’d nurtured from the start.
And now that belief has been validated here as well as on Broadway (where it won seven Tony’s, including best musical.) The Sunday before last it went head-to-head with the 2011 Tony winner The Book of Mormon in London for the Oliviers, and though that bigger, brasher (and yes, funnier) musical inevitably swept the boards, I was delighted to see Once win two: one for Zrinka Cvitesic, its co-star (winning, coincidentally, where her Tony equivalent Cristin Milioti didn’t), and another in the newly-created category of achievement in music for its score and arrangements.
The London production invited critics to re-review the show with its new cast (only Cvitesic has stayed on from the original company) a couple of weeks ago, but I was away in New York so missed that opportunity. (I was delighted, though, to see Quentin Letts, coming to the show for the first time, giving it a five star rave). But I took part of my bank holiday weekend to take it in again myself and was delighted, as ever, to do so.
Arthur Darvill is currently reprising the role of Guy that he took over on Broadway, and I’m particularly delighted that London is getting a chance to see him. I’d seen him do it in New York, too, and he’s the perfect embodiment of an Everyman musician with a bruised heart. Some may be surprised by his natural affinity for the guitar, but Globe regulars will know that he has regularly composed music for shows there.
But while Darvill is a revelation, Cvitesic is an ongoing wonder: she brings a burning inner fire and aching feeling to the role of Girl that never overstates itself. Neither does the show. This is a one-of-a-kind musical – almost experimental & quietly radical in form, it bursts with integrity and intensity.
There’s real joy as well as sadness in John Tiffany’s moody, marvellous production, and it’s wonderful to see the stupendous company of actor-musicians rising to its challenges. Every single one contributes – I should simply name them all in a roll call of honour: Fiona Bruce, Mark Carlisle, Jamie Cameron, Juliana Cotton, Matthew Ganley, Matthew Hamper, Daniel Healy, Demi Lee, Gemma Loader, Miria Parvin, Tim Prottey-Jones, Loren O’Dair, Ruby Payne and Jez Unwin.
Ditto the amazing creative team, that also includes Olivier winning musical supervisor and orchestrator Martin Lowe, designer Bob Crowley, and movement director Steven Hoggett. The latter is also Tiffany’s co-director on the equally amazing stage version of Let The Right One In now at the Apollo.
As it happens, I caught up with the original 2008 Swedish film version of Let the Right One In over the bank holiday weekend, too, and it made me truly appreciate the narrative and theatrical strengths of the stage version: while it is a film of brooding, sinister silences and very realistic violence, I could now see how utterly vivid its translation into a theatrical language has been. It’s the same thing that Tiffany and Hoggett did to Once: wrestling it away from the naturalism of film to an expressively imaginative and immediate fluency onstage.