Benet Catty Productions

Once - London (WE) 2013

Jun 6, 2013

Places & Faces Magazine

If 2008 was the year of the credit crunch, 2012 was the year of the musical mush. Following a year that included triumphant and acclaimed new musicals (MATILDA, GHOST, BETTY BLUE EYES, LONDON ROAD), last year gave us a motley collection. Things are looking up for 2013, though. Fans of the blockbuster and the big tune have plenty to get excited about. THE BOOK OF MORMON (as reported here last month) is a monster hit; CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (from the writers of HAIRSPRAY) has itself become the golden ticket that even Charlie Bucket might not be able to get his hands on and new musicals are coming up from Tim Rice and Tori Amos.

But it is ONCE, the low-key, small scale, Irish musical that won almost as many Tonys as MORMON, that is proving to be the 'sleeper hit' - the show with fewer bus fronts but just as many die-hards entranced by the lilting, romantic, grown-up classiness which it embodies. It is delicate, bittersweet, charming and, at least seemingly, the opposite of a commercial proposition. It is surely one of the least likely Broadway hits of recent decades and the most surprising Best Musical win since The Wiz beat Mack and Mabel to the top prize in 1975. It has seemingly nothing going for it: light on story, only one set, no big set pieces. All it has on its side is its class and honesty.

Set in an Irish bar, ONCE follows a struggling musician (Declan Bennett) as he falls in-line and then in love with a pretty Czech immigrant (Zrinka Cvitesic) who walks in. He mends her hoover, she spots his talent. (So many love stories begin that way.) The story is subtle and slight, and in fairness doesn't really sustain the 2 1/2 hour playing time. Like most musicals, it has a theme of being true to who you are and following your heart. Unlike most musicals, it explores the idea as a pencil drawing rather than a brush stroke.

The design, by the ever-enterprising Bob Crowley (creator of many a maximilist spectacle before now) creates an authentic Irish pub with cunningly positioned mirrors in all corners through which we view the action in multiple angles, as if encouraging to look at things a different way. This is subtly lit by Natasha Katz and with a delicate sound design by Clive Goodwin that enhances rather than amplifies - again a relatively rare treat in contemporary musicals.

Although it is the staging and style that one takes away more than the appealing but mostly forgettable tunes, Enda Walsh (writer of many a terrific play at the National and elsewhere) provides a book with the kind of wit and low-key lilting charm that perfectly harmonises with the songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

The perception of many is that musicals have to be the homes for mega-spectacles. Not true. WICKED may be a monster, with more automation than actors. But two thirds of LES MISERABLES takes place on a bare stage; CATS was a single set of a rubbish dump that cost 400,000 at the time (even then not outlandish). THE LION KING is a mighty spectacle but save for a corkscrew revolve (which the National instigated itself in the 1960s) it is dazzlingly low tech.

And let's not forget that BLOOD BROTHERS, a show that played for nearly a quarter of a century at the same address as ONCE, was cheap - small set, small band, small ambition, huge emotional reach. For producers, this surely must be the ideal combination.

There is something intrinsically appealing about the chamber musical. Howard Goodall's adaptation of LOVE STORY - co-produced in the West End by Michael Ball - was perhaps the most beautiful and moving night I've ever spent at a musical and had a tiny cast, an on-stage band of 6 and one set. LONDON ROAD, the Adam Cork/Alecky Blythe musical documentary about the effect of the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich won awards and created a genre of verbatim musical which will surely be much imitated in the years to come. Both were striking for the boldness of their minimalism and the stylishness of their stagings (by Rachel Kavanaugh and Rufus Norris respectively). The writing and the story did the work. So it is with ONCE.

For all the praise heaped on ONCE ("If London audiences don't love it to bits, I disown them" said The Times) it's originality should not be overstated. Actor-musician shows have been around for a while, particularly since John Doyle's productions of Sweeney Todd and others redefined the style for West End audiences. Single set musicals have often succeeded. Irish drama has often been successful in London. But its the mixture that makes the meal, and John Tiffany knows how to create spontaneity and authenticity on stage. ONCE is the culmination of that.

The show is too long (it should really be 1hr45 straight through) and the appealing songs have diminishing returns after the interval save for an amazingly gorgeous a cappella rendition of one of the key songs, Gold, during which you could hear a pin-drop.

But these are minor quibbles in a show that deserves the success that seemed so unlikely for it and yet which has so far given it a 2 year run on Broadway.

ONCE is also the only show that features an on-stage bar from which the audience can purchase drinks and sing along with the cast before the show begins and in the interval. You don't get that on many shows. It's not just a quirky idea. It makes the ONCE a piece that is not so much a "show" as a "share". And I'll drink to that.

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