I think many of us, and especially veteran theatre-goers, have a definite idea of what a ‘musical’ is. There are usually plenty of big dance numbers and a hefty amount of bruising on the ol’ senses as a spectacle is made, usually to the great delight of the audience. But what happens when a show comes in and changes everything?
The magic of Once is how wonderfully understated it is; something that threatens to question the very notion of the ‘musical’. It is pure and organic and it gives the audience a glimpse not only into the characters’ souls but into their own. Once is powerful but not for one instance does it use a cover or pretence to convince people of it. It tells a story that many have already experienced one way or another in their own lives and where there’s undeniable pain and heartbreak, there’s also hope and that will always triumph, hands down.
The book’s writer, Enda Walsh, seemingly had a very large project to deal with in translating this story from screen to stage but where the film, though beautiful, lacks character development, especially with the Girl, the stage is brought alive by Jill Winternitz’s straight to the point, witty and hilarious counter-part. Walsh surpassed himself and, in my opinion, created a much fleshier story with characters that are easier to empathise with. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a million more times, the subtlety and rawness is what makes it such a successful love story and Walsh has ensured the original story only gains momentum.
Once has the power to carry its audience away to a paradise where nothing matters but the heart-wrenching, exquisite music and the emotions it invokes. There were a number of times where I found myself either closing my eyes – merely wanting to absorb the beauty created by the band or leaning forward so as to not miss a single beat or moment. The film’s stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova co-wrote the score and the show has new additions and whilst all songs are wonderful, there’s no denying the epic, Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’ stands out on its own. That said, pre-interval, ‘Gold’ certainly pounds through the nerve-endings. Music supervisor and the man behind the orchestrations, Martin Lowe has maintained the success he generated on Broadway and the actor/musicians transcend perfection in giving the story’s narrative a deeply emotional underlay.
Having gone through three different ‘Guys’, newcomer David Hunter has a couple of hard acts to follow. The melancholy he injects into the songs is whole-hearted and the high notes are spine tingling – he certainly has nothing to worry about. Both he and Winternitz have excellent chemistry and not for one second do you doubt their feelings.
The cast are extraordinary – I can’t fault a single one of them (alongside the leads, Jez Unwin’s Bank Manager is a particular stand-out), but it’s essentially a joint effort from all involved in this extraordinary show. Director John Tiffany, who is also behind the similarly low-key, fragile vampire film to stage adaptation of Let the Right One In, has just delved into what makes this story so strong and ensured all the key elements are there. Scenic designer Bob Crowley’s bar scene is changed throughout using various props effortlessly and runs with the show’s theme. The movement used during Winternitz’s ‘If You Want Me’ could have proved distracting but whilst yes, it is a tad random, it is to movement director Steven Hoggett’s credit that it is fluid and only works in carrying the show along.
I think subtlety is my new favourite word – it just always works. Less is more here and I hope Once will give rise to a new breed of ‘musical’.