For those of you who like a quick drink before a show starts, you have something a little different to try with this new musical because you can get a drink from the on-stage bar before the show begins, and mingle with the cast at the same time. Don't worry if you get there late, because the stage bar re-opens during the interval! A neat idea, but there is a lot more to this show than simply getting 15 minutes or so on a West End stage.
'Once' is based on the 2006 film of the same title, which has already earned significant acclaim. Shot on a shoe-string budget, it starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová who also wrote all the original songs. The film was set in Dublin, and this stage version follows suit. Here, though, all of the action is set against the backdrop of a Dublin pub with mirror-clad walls (hence the chance to slake your thirst on-stage).
Dublin-born Enda Walsh is responsible for the book which centres on two musicians, here simply called Guy (played by Declan Bennett) and Girl (played by Zrinka Cvitešic). Essentially this is a boy-meets-girl story. Well, to be more precise it is a boy-loses-girl then bumps-into-another-girl story. Guy's girlfriend has hopped across the pond to work in New York, leaving him miserable and dejected in Dublin, so that he has lost interest even in his music. Then he bumps into Girl who recognises he is a talented musician and encourages him to get back into music-making, and organises a bank loan to cover the cost of recording his work. Of course, this musical duo have more on their minds than simply making music, as one might imagine. Romance is definitely in the air, but Girl has ties with a husband and a young child and is unwilling to become romantically entangled with Guy.
The actors here all double as singers and musicians as well. Though this format is hardly unique it is certainly appropriate for the show. All the cast are extremely capable singers and musicians, and apart from the guitar, which forms the backbone of the orchestrations, there are plenty of other instruments in action including two violins, accordion, cello and boxes which function as drums. The singing is powerful and evocative, especially from the two leads: Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešic. Instant standing ovations – the kind where everyone in the audience immediately springs to their feet come the curtain calls – are, in my experience, relatively rare, even when the house is packed to the rafters with friends of the cast and production supporters. But there was hardly a moment's hesitation before the entire audience got to their feet at the end of this show. And walking out of the theatre the snippets of conversations I overheard seemed to confirm the opinion so readily expressed at the final curtain – and one couple at least were already planning their next visit!
So what makes it so special and so enjoyable? I would like to say that the answer lies with Enda Walsh's book, partly because I am big fan of his work. But I also have an aversion to romance, so this really did not appeal much to me, even though it is not really a typical love story (and I won't spoil it by saying much more). To be honest, though, the story is almost irrelevant, at least in a way, because what makes this musical really special and puts it in a different league to other offerings is the captivating, magical quality of the songs. Almost from the first note, you realise you are listening to music that is extraordinarily distinctive, powerfully emotional and hugely affecting – in a word... stunning.
"Enda Walsh’s book expands the film’s script yet is still concise, and John Tiffany directs with fluent skill..[Once] has a delicate soulfulness and a truthful charm."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The tone is bitter-sweet, like a modern-day Brief Encounter. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, are mostly sad, wistful and melodic, though they sometimes build up a head of steam and become downright anguished..There is a genuine tenderness between the main couple, though neither Declan Bennett nor Zrinka Cvitešic prove quite as touching as the stars of the film. The dialogue is often cheesy...But my frequent impatience with this show certainly didn’t seem to be shared by most of the audience, who rose as one to applaud Once.
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Charmingly funny and affecting production ."
Paul Taylor for The Independent