A charming, subtle and sweet musical, Once is a refreshing addition to the West End. The story isn’t anything epic and there are no famous faces or bombastic, operatic musical numbers, but this is a well-directed and beautifully performed production that moves audiences without resorting to musical clichés.
Originally a small, low-budget 2006 film by John Carney, Once began to receive attention after one of its original songs, “Falling Slowly”, won an Academy Award. The songs, all original folk numbers by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are the backbone of the musical, supported by a book by Edna Walsh, which has been brilliantly adapted from the film, retaining its simple charm. The central characters, Guy and Girl, never given real names, are both cast perfectly, with Declan Bennett giving a more interesting and likeable performance than Glen Hansard did in the film, and Zrinka Cvitešić is a melancholy and moving Girl. The plot is one that focuses on romance and music, both of which are in high supply throughout Once.
What really enhances the theatrical experience of “Once” is its staging, which takes the story inside a Dublin pub, and surrounds its principal actors with musicians (all of the actors double as musicians), giving the music in the show a more natural, organic feel than in some other musicals, where the songs can feel shoehorned into place. The singing is all pitch-perfect, bringing out the best in the show’s beautifully written music. A casual, informal tone to the production is enhanced by the decision to allow audience members to join the cast on stage to have a drink on the set before the show begins and during the interval, rather than closing the curtains. Although this might feel a tad gimmicky (and not as original as some might think; audience interaction isn’t all that uncommon in theatres this days), it does create a great atmosphere for Once, a warm, welcoming feeling that invites its audience in before the performance has even officially begun.