Based on a low-budget Irish film, Once centres around a singer-songwriter in Dublin, who is left depressed and lonely following the departure of his girlfriend and death of his mother. He lives his life fixing hoovers in his father’s shop; sleeping in a tiny room and spending his days alone writing beautiful songs of love and longing.
Whilst busking in the streets of Dublin, playing his music to tramps and drunks who don’t care, he meets a warm Czech girl – similarly financially and emotionally troubled but with an optimism and persistence that is infectious. This, along with mutual musical ability, the pair fall deeply into a strained, muted love.
Sounds sentimental, doesn’t it? And it is. It really really is. However both the stage show and film avoid the trap of a soppy ending – meaning that Once (the show) had me sobbing, unabashedly, throughout the entirety of the second half.
There are a few key points which make Once such an excellent musical.
The first being the cast – these super talented musicians-come actors-come dancers give the entire performance an artistic integrity which gives strength to the play’s plot, with music and dialogue blending seamlessly and naturally between acts.
(On a side note I certainly found myself empathising with the male lead, largely because he was painfully handsome.)
The second is the plot itself – unlike most film-turned-stage productions, John Tiffany’s production added more of a narrative and interesting sub-plot to the story than the film. Characters alongside the two leads were more developed, with nuances and individual stories running with the main plot. This meant that the stage production was significantly more emotionally immersive, and I found myself connecting with the cast and story as a whole, rather than specifically the two lead characters (who actually, in the film, are pretty annoying).
The third is the set design. The stage has been designed to look and feel like an old Irish pub, and when I was told I could go and have a drink on the stage in the working bar, whilst the chorus played Irish folk tunes I cringed a little inside. However, as much as the initial cynic in me thought it was all a bit contrived and corny, the idea works as a whole – and my mind soon changed as I jumped to my feet, clapping wildly, to give a teary standing ovation at the end.
Once the Musical is playing at the Phoenix Theatre London Until Nov 30. Tickets: 0844 871 7629; oncemusical.co.uk
Review by Kirsty Hulse