Thursday 6 March 2014

Once @ The Phoenix Theatre, London

I wept.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I confess that tears were definitely shed.  And coming from someone who has never once (see what I did there) shed a single tear in a theatre, this is praise indeed.

What’s so refreshing about Once is its sense of truth and complete honesty – like the film it’s based on.  Far from the razzle dazzle jazz hands of so many musicals, Once tells a touchingly human and believable story of unrequited love through onstage musicians and diegetic music.  Set in a bar in Ireland, the set never changes, the props are minimal and the lighting is subtle and naturalistic.  The show is extraordinary for its ordinariness.

The show begins as soon as you enter the theatre.  The set is literally an onstage bar where the audience can order drinks and watch the cast perform Irish folk songs, immediately instilling a sense of intimacy.  As we take our seats, the lights gradually dim and we segue seamlessly into the main show.  The artifice of the theatre is stripped away; here authenticity is key.

This extends to the performances.  Everything is underplayed with a lightness of touch rarely seen in musical theatre.  For a relatively downbeat show, there remains a great amount of comedy in the dialogue and plenty of sarcasm in the delivery.  The actors are less performing as characters and more real people, as if we are watching events unfold in our local pub.  As an ensemble, the cast are immensely talented, singing and playing their instruments onstage with admirable skill.  The a capella reprise of Gold in the second act, however, features sublime harmony in a true moment of magic. 

Zrinka Cvitešić gives a stunning performance as the plucky Czech ‘girl’, totally committed to the emotion of the role.  Her rendition of The Hill is completely heart-wrenching, tears visibly running down her cheeks.  As her counterpart, the ‘guy’, Declan Bennett is simply outstanding.  This is a performer who truly sings from the heart and soul, whether through soft falsetto, gorgeous lyricism or a hot-blooded gutsy tenor.  He is lost in the music, performing as if nobody is watching, wrapped up in raw emotion.  The audience will be too.

Once is light on plot, its ‘girl meets boy’ story perhaps even clichéd.  Yet the emphasis is on the believable performances and the beautiful music from Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, turning fantasy into reality.  Musically this is the stripped back, acoustic session of musicals - if Damien Rice were to write a show it would sound like this.  Heartfelt songwriting, yearning melodies, folksy guitars and virtuosic fiddle playing all play a key role in slowly drawing the audience in to the plot.  The only fault is that such intimacy is easily interrupted by the rumbling of a tube train beneath the theatre, or a fidgeting audience member.  For the most part, though, you could hear a pin drop – not something you’d find in most brash musical productions.

By the end, the opening notes alone of Falling Slowly were enough to set me off.  I think I’ve found my kryptonite.


Watch: Once is booking until July 2015.