In 2006, Once was a small budget film. Its success escalated quickly, and not only did it win a Grammy for its soundtrack, but an Academy Award too. Six years later the story made its way to Broadway, where it won a total of eight Tony Awards. So it was only a matter of time before London got a taste of Once, too, and I am so glad that it did.
Set in Dublin, it tells the story of a man busking with his folk-rock songs who is befriended by a quirky Czech woman whilst playing. It seems as if he is ready to give up on his music and his former love that inspired the songs, but ‘Girl’ questions him. When she finds out that he also fixes hoovers for a living, she asks him to repair her broken one but says she can only repay him in music. They soon set off on a whirlwind week, recording the songs so that ‘Guy’ can make money and get his former girlfriend back, who now lives in New York.
Once is a musical unlike any other I’ve ever seen with its strongest point being its utter simplicity in every form. It proves immediately that you don’t need a revolving stage or extravagant costumes to make a show that will remain with its audiences forever.
It is still very true to the film, too. Playwright Enda Walsh has done a magnificent job of adapting the script to still include all the best parts of the movie, and also added in some new quirks – my favourite being the character Billy, the music shop owner who barely has a presence in the film. Aidan Kelly does a sterling job of playing the old, disillusioned rocker with a heart of gold. The Czech flatmates and mother also provide another level of depth and comedy to the story too, mostly while discussing their love for Irish soap opera Fair City and perfecting their Dublin accents. The set, a rustic Irish pub, designed by Bob Crowley, (which you are invited to inspect more closely when visiting the on-stage bar before the show and in the interval) provides us with a base for the story, and the mirrors that hang on every square inch of wall allow us a reflection of the musical action on stage. Add to this the genius use of lighting by Natasha Katz, which turns the pub into a hoover shop, a bedroom, a bank and a recording studio, and you feel absolutely no need for any other form of scenery. My personal highlight of both Crowley and Katz’s work is seen in the cliff-top scene – while the lead characters stand above the set, a whole town can be seen twinkling below.
The award-winning songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are by far the best part of the show. Thanks to the complete naturalism of ‘Guy’ (Declan Bennett) and ‘Girl’ (Zrinka Cvitešić) you find yourself completely immersed in the music and lyrics, and your heart swells as you take in the breathtaking beauty of the melodies– particularly in the song ‘Gold’ which marks the end of Act One.
What I love so much about this show is that it is completely unlike anything else in the West End at the moment; there’s no massive set or even a particularly elaborate storyline, but its naturalism, its heart and its music are worth the visit alone. I think it’s something that the West End needs and hope to see it run for a long time.
Once is playing The Phoenix Theatre until 30 November 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Official Once, The Musical website. Photography by Richard Lakos.