Book by Enda Walsh
Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London
Booking until November 30, 2013
Once upon a time there was a sweet boy-meets-girl movie called Once. Sweet, but with ‘nouvelle vague’ aspirations, it resembled early Godard, before he went obscure. The tiny budget for this Irish indie, which wowed them at Sundance, was no hindrance because it had a rather stifling focus on its two young musical protagonists, as they found each other, found love and then parted. He’s a young Dublin busker and she’s a Czech émigré pianist, whose only musical outlet is some stolen time on a piano in the shop of an ardent old admirer. She tries to awaken the closed Irish man to his talent and get him to play for her and in the process he gets a much needed confidence boost.
You couldn’t imagine a more unlikely prospect for a Broadway musical but this is what happened to it. Edgy Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs, Walworth Farce) was hired to develop this sliver of a story for the stage and the original songs from the film were re-worked with gloriously simple arrangements by Martin Lowe. It all worked. The show conquered Broadway, won 8 Tonys and is now wooing audiences in the West End.
Unlike the over-amped bombast of most modern musicals, they wisely opted here to keep it simple. Walsh has fleshed out the supporting characters, who barely register in the film, into a coterie of broad comic archetypes, but the clever idea was to have them all double up as the musicians. In addition, movement director Steven Hoggatt has devised wonderful ways to turn them into dancers while they still hold every note. For a slight piece like this it was a perfect solution.
Another inspired idea by John Tiffany (the Scottish director here, fresh from the huge success of The Black Watch) was to stage it on a single set with minimal use of props. Theatre is an act of imagination, something often lost on designers of musicals with their huge flying sets. Bob Crowley’s set of a curving, nicotine-stained, Dublin pub, circled with large foxed mirrors is wonderfully evocative. It’s a functioning pub too, so if you arrive early you can partake of a pint and an on-stage hootenanny.
The designer-stubbled, handsome, brooding, busker is perfectly captured by Declan Bennett and his gauche Irish awkwardness is counter pointed by the cocky directness of the Czech ‘Girl’, played with great verve by a Croatian star, Zrinka Cvitesic. A mix of both Irish and English actors fills out the great supporting cast of actor-musicians. The director also hits on a clever way of using surtitles in Czech to show when the characters are conversing in their own language.
The piece is an interesting reflection too on the loneliness of the emigrant, the Girl’s fear of intimacy with Guy is driven by a loyalty to a husband back home who has deserted her. His awkwardness is just standard issue young Irish male.
The thinness of the plot and the lack of dramatic heft in the music does at times let it down but then it is rescued by the simple beauty of insinuating melodies, with the second act acapella number The Moon an exquisite highlight. Falling Slowly the song from the movie, which won an Oscar, is, unsually, near the top, but is reprised at the end. It is gentle and moving but not a showstopper, but then, that’s not this show’s style.