When you go to the West End to see a musical you are usually expecting a large cast, glam and glitter but Once is not such a musical. It is the David to the other Goliaths of the musical theatre genre. It is a gentle, lyrical gem that is genuinely moving, based on the film of 2007 and winner of numerous awards including an Oscar and a British Independent Film Award. The music is beautiful, ranging through Irish folk, soft rock and Czech music.
Even walking into the auditorium is an experience. The audience enters and the stage is lit and alive. As you find your seat the talented cast are on stage having a party and you are invited to join them. It is like a ceilidh and, as they sing and play their instruments, you can have a drink on stage and feel part of the action. You are 10 minutes into the play before the auditorium lights are lowered and the audience start watching rather than being in the play. During the interval you can drink on stage, lean against the bar that is central to the plot and staging, and be an active participant – drinking at the bar of life. The bar has a large mirror around it which reflects the audience and it is this intimacy, this close relationship between cast and audience, that makes Once the beautiful musical that it is. Perhaps it would sit easier in a smaller theatre, but then fewer people would see it, and this play should be seen!
Once is a love story between two young people who collaborate on a musical project; we genuinely care for these main characters, the jilted Irishman and the vivacious Czech girl, sensitively acted by Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic. Both deserve to be loved. We watch the tentative moves of the relationship and we fear for the couple; their emotions are understated and thus believable. The tender scene in which they stand, spotlit, high above the stage, looking down at the lights beneath, is very touching. The use of subtitles is clever as the audience understands the girl’s words although the boy does not. Their voices are divine, particularly in the lyrical “Falling Slowly”.
The musical and acting abilities of the whole cast deserve mention. They work as an ensemble but there are also some wonderful cameo moments: the friend working at the café; the awkward banker; the young Czech girl. They move seamlessly from acting as characters to working as a chorus to playing their instruments. The choreography felt very natural, never stagey, although there were some beautiful moments of stylised physical theatre. The highlight, within a number of highlights of this musical, was the acapella number – a magical piece in which the whole cast, one by one, joined the singing.
I occasionally struggled to hear the lyrics and some of the lines as the Irish and Czech accents are strong but I never lost sight of the beauty of the moment. Once is a play in which the music is integral. It has real singers, real characters, real musicians – it is small but perfectly formed. I loved it.
Review by Valerie Watling
Friday 18th October 2013