- The Stage - https://www.thestage.co.uk -

Once review at Phoenix London

Thanks to the bellowing publicity machine of The Book Of Mormon, audiences might be forgiven for not noticing that another Broadway transfer has just opened in the West End.

Once is a new musical based on a low-budget Irish movie by John Carney that starred musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. If the lack of a virulent marketing campaign seems like a risk in the current climate, it is perhaps symptomatic of this broadly anti-Broadway sensation, which still managed to pick up eight Tony awards last year, including gongs for best musical and best book.

Black Watch director John Tiffany might seem a curious choice to place at the helm of a new musical but his steady, economic style, complemented by Steve Hoggett’s minimalist choreography, pares everything down to a single pub setting. Here Tiffany has successfully transferred the intimacy and energy of a fringe-style production to the big stage. To further break down the fourth wall, the audience is invited to buy drinks before the show at designer Bob Crowley’s onstage bar and join in the revelry of the company as they perform a mix Czech and Irish folk songs.

Irish playwright Enda Walsh captures the fragile charm of the original movie in a book bursting with unexpected humour, while Hansard and Irglova’s haunting score re-affirms the universal language of music as a means of communication across physical and emotional borders.

In terms of popular appeal, Once ticks many boxes, not least with its contemporary score – a blend of folk-rock in a style reminiscent of James Blunt, Dido or Newton Faulkner. The music is eminently accessible and, with Walsh’s book, perhaps offers a glimmer of sophistication to modern audiences tired of back-catalogue musicals or asinine plots.

Fans of the original movie will not be disappointed as most of the songs are intact, including the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly, which bookends the bittersweet, unfinished love story between the Guy and the Girl.

Declan Bennett as the Guy does a superb job of capturing the frustrations and awkwardness of a modern man who can only express his emotional self through his music. Bennett’s is a blissfully understated performance that bounces perfectly off Zrinka Cvitesic’s feisty Girl, the real force to be reckoned with on stage. The Girl is the energy behind the proceedings, the driving force that turns the Guy’s life around and forces him to pursue his dream. Cvitesic’s inner strength is palpable on stage as a strong vocalist with great comic timing, but ultimately it’s her frailty that steals the show. There may be humour in the Guy’s inability to express his feelings, but for the Girl there is only heartache.

The rest of the ensemble play the oddball inhabitants of this small Dublin community, and the encroaching Czech migrants, although any hint of racial antagonism is restricted to natives of Cork. Michael O’Connor is a gentle presence as Da, suitably juxtaposed to the innate vitality of Valda Aviks’ garrulous Baruska. Aidan Kelly provides some initial humour as the over-protective Billy but it is when we are introduced to the triumvirate of Jos Slovick, Ryan Fletcher and Flora Spencer-Longhurst – the Girl’s Czech flatmates – that the real fun starts.

Despite the simplicity of the plot, there are some longueurs in the second half as the book attempts to come to grips with the complexities within the romantic thread of the story. Purists may also criticise a lack of diversity in musical style or the lack of narrative within the numbers, making it more of a play with songs than traditional musical theatre. In truth, much the same can be said for Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, and that ran at the same venue for 21 years.

Production Information

Phoenix, London, April 11-November 30

Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova (music/lyrics), Enda Walsh (book)
John Tiffany
Barbara Broccoli, John N Hart Jr, Patrick Milling Smith, Frederick Zollo, Brian Carmody, Michael G Wilson, Orin Wolf Productions, Michael Rose Ltd
Declan Bennett, Zrinka Cvitesic, Valda Aviks, Ryan Fletcher, Aidan Kelly, Gareth O’Connor, Michael O’Connor, Miria Parvin, Jos Slovick, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Jez Unwin, Gabriel Vick, Poppy-Lily Baker
Running time
2hrs 30mins