The movie Once is a musical so subtle that most people don’t even realise it is a musical in the first place. The indie feel, low-key guitar songs and musician characters mean that it’s easy to miss the way characters unfailingly sing their feelings, or the miraculous ability they all have to pick up one another’s songs (which, let’s face it, talented musicians can actually do to a greater or lesser extent, so it only seems miraculous to the rest of us). All of that makes it a non-obvious choice for a stage adaptation – but the further non-obvious choices made in staging that adaptation make this a show that’s as delightfully low-key as the film was. Despite the fact that this is a Broadway smash transferred to the West End, it could hardly be further from the Lloyd Webber / Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza we’re accustomed to seeing.
For one thing, this is a musical with only one set – an Irish pub, its walls lined with mirrors hung haphazardly at various angles – and virtually no dancing. It doesn’t so much start with a big number as fade into view: as the audience arrives in the theatre, the cast are already onstage playing Irish music, fiddlers and guitarists jamming away happily and different singers jumping in and out with each song. But eventually Declan Bennett, who plays the unnamed leading man (he’s simply known as Guy), takes up his guitar alone and starts to play a slower song, and the house lights slowly fade, and you realise that the show has started before you’ve even turned your phone off. Zrinka Cvitešić, the Girl, walks up the central aisle and pauses in front of the stage, a single spotlight on her and her reflection clear in the big mirror behind the onstage bar. It’s a gorgeous way to open a show.
The story, as you’d expect, stays close to that of the film, with the determined Girl persuading the Guy to fix her hoover in return for playing his music, and then deciding that they should work together on his songs – more or less without any input from him. He’s broken-hearted from a recent break-up but makes a pass anyway; she’s determined to get him recording so he can make the money to travel to New York and get back together with his ex. But there are feelings between them anyway, even if they’re never quite expressed in the way you might expect.
It’s all gloriously understated, and the musical maintains the film’s very Irish sense of hesitancy and diffidence mixed with passion underneath. Heck, you can even forgive it some interpretive dance bits during a few of the songs, since the rest of it feels so grounded. The supporting cast stay onstage almost throughout, sitting quietly on chairs lining the pub’s walls or taking up their instruments for backing music as needed. Their presence, and visible playing, gives this more of the feeling of a live gig than a musical; you can see the musicians throw one another the odd glance to make sure they’re all going to finish together, so the audience has the sense that you’ve just stumbled into the most musical pub in the world. And as an added bonus, you can actually down your interval drinks at the on-stage bar, which struck me as an inspired decision.
Overall, it’s hard to fault. You’ll need to like gentle love stories and a bit of fiddling to really adore it, but it would take a hard heart indeed to object to much here. If you can get through this without shedding a quiet tear for the one that got away, you’re a stronger person than me.
nmc1007 Posted on Friday April 26, 2013, 18:10
Saw this a few months ago in Dublin, right around the corner from the place they shot the opening busking scene in the movie. It's absolutely fab!! If you like the movie, you'll love the play!
jencat Posted on Friday April 26, 2013, 18:28
It's funny, I was a bit wary about going to see it because I really love the film, and I really wanted to love this, but I kind of wish I hadn't seen it now. Even though the staging is intriguing, and the music is gorgeously performed, and it's novel, but compared to the film, my god they stomp all over the characters, and the meaning of the songs within the structure, and the plot feels a bit too padded (mostly with jokes about Fair City, bizarrely?)
I'm still not sure why they felt the need to make Guy totally passive and Girl relentlessly pushy, but it changes the character dynamic so much from the film (also, the very obvious age gap doesn't really exist any more). I mean, the film is more about them both reluctantly pushing each other out of their comfort zones, and the show is just... Girl, badgering away. And some of the new dialogue just felt sentimental and cringy (well, I ended up slunk down in my seat a couple of times wishing they'd stop bloody talking and start singing again).
As a gig, it's lovely and everyone is very talented and pretty and it does look gorgeous (and it's clever). No problem with the staging at all (except the lack of bunny slippers in a key scene!). It was the book I had problems with - and it didn't feel like a gentle love story any more, it felt like everyone bellowing how they feel so that they can be heard above the comedy Czech sidekicks and interpretive dance (also, bit of a difference between moving to NY and moving to London?). No, I have no clue how else they could have done some of the scenes, but I like that Once is subtle, and the show doesn't seem to trust the audience enough to catch the story without spelling it out. But, obviously, this is one of those things that everyone loves except me :o)
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