The challenge; to take a beautifully understated, Oscar award winning, low budget film and turn it into a multi-million pound Broadway hit relevant for the stage, maintaining the fragility and simplicity of the characters and their emotional bonds without losing the musical passion in the transfer from screen to stage. The result; a refreshingly original production the likes of which London has never seen.
Once takes place in Dublin and follows the story of Guy (Declan Bennett), an Irish busker-cum-Hoover repairman, who is left heartbroken when his partner cheats on him and runs off to New York, and Girl (Zrinka Cvitsie), a feisty yet vulnerable Czech immigrant. As the Irish songster strums a song about unrequited love on the desolate streets of Dublin, the sarcastic Girl approaches him and, after a brief conversation, convinces him to fix her Hoover for which she will pay him with music. Queue the shows stand out number Falling Slowly for which the film won its Oscar. As the relationship between the couple grows, Girl becomes increasingly set on reuniting her new friend with his absent partner. What ensues is a beautiful ‘will they, wont they’ love story as the sassy Girl helps the shy Guy realise his destiny, though the road to New York is winding and their feelings for each other threaten to get in the way of the original game plan.
The beauty of the film is in its ability to move you through its music and through the relationships of the leading couple whilst remaining incredibly understated and humble, drawing you in to their story. There’s several problems with adapting a film like that for the stage; you can’t do close ups, there needs to be an element of unnatural projection to fill a 1000 seat theatre and there is an expectation for an element of choreography, all of these aspects have the potential to drown out the essence of this story and take away from the intimacy of the piece, but I’m pleased to say that this is certainly not the case with Once.
The screenplay has been wonderfully adapted by Playwright Enda Walsh injecting some much needed humour into the piece, he has also beautifully and comically beefed out characters including the music shop owner, bank manager and the Girls friends which add another level to the story. The set design by Bob Crowley and brilliant lighting by Peter Hoerburger also help to draw us in to the piece, aside from the bar, the set is made up of the furniture in the room, six tables and 12 chairs, which are moved around by the cast throughout the show to create the various locations they end up in, this is aided remarkably by the lighting, a lovely moment occurring when the duo are on top of the pub looking over the bright lights of the city. The walls of the pub are adorned with mirrors which provide interesting sight angles and a further portal for the audience to feel part of the action. Director John Tiffany has done a tremendous job of ensuring that the show stays true to the film, the pace whilst slow in parts is overall spot on, as is the comic timing. There is a real sense that Tiffany wanted the audience to be a part of the unfolding love story, which is apparent even before the show begins as a pre-show hootenanny takes place on stage with audience invited up to purchase drinks from the on stage bar and immerse themselves in the action.. I was slightly disappointed that the scene in the recording studio was cut short, in the film you really get the sense that they put their heart and soul into making the record, which adds something to the following scene on the beach and the beautiful song Gold. The show is inevitably helped in no small way by an absolutely stunning soundtrack, very unlike anything the West-End has seen before. Resembling the current popular sounds of bands like Mumford and Sons, this Irish folk score doesn’t have a bad song in it, my favourites being Gold, Falling Slowly and When Your Mind’s Made Up. But what makes this a truly unmissable show is the oh-so-talented cast, outstanding not only in their theatrical performance but also in their musical abilities, with every cast member apart from the young daughter Ivanka (played sweetly by Pacha Ann Green) playing a musical instrument ranging from guitar to violin, accordion to mandolin. Bennett is perfect as Guy, his stunning voice equally matched by Cvitsie who gave easily the standout performance of the evening with her hilarious yet very touching portrayal of Girl. Other memorable performances came from Valda Aviks as Girl’s mother Baruska, Aidan Kelly who played the outrageous Billy and the ensemble on the whole were very well cast and provided many moments of laughter and emotion.
One of the great things about this show and what makes it stand out from other shows on the West End is that it doesn’t need the glitz and glamour, the flashing lights or pumping sound system. Like the film, it remains unashamedly low-key, but through its silence and its delicacy, it speaks volumes about the healing powers of music, love and friendship. A must see.
Once at the Phoenix Theatre is currently booking until 30 November. Tickets can be purchased by calling 0844 871 7629 or online at www.oncemusical.co.uk.