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Once a new musical review Phoenix Theatre

Once CastReview of Once a new musical at the Phoenix Theatre London West End.

Billed as ‘Musical Love Story’, this unusual production is neither a traditional love story, nor, in the strictest sense, a musical.

Based on a low-budget 2006 film and fresh from a spectacularly successful season on Broadway, Once is a beguiling mixture of music, dance and poignant narrative, set against a backdrop of present day Dublin. The main characters are quite simply Guy and Girl. Guy is, as girl puts it, “stopped”. His love has gone to New York without him, and his musical aspirations have ground to a halt. He lives with his father above their small shop, where they mend hoovers. Then Girl walks into his local, and into his life. Girl is Czech, a piano-loving single mother, living with her mother and a crowd of loveable eccentrics whose stories all interweave as they pull together to rescue Guy and his musical career, after Girl has caught him ominously and symbolically abandoning his precious guitar on the floor of the pub.

Girl has her own demons to fight – her husband has left her and her faith in love has been shaken, but she remains cheerful and resolute in the face of adversity; her Never Say Die attitude is catching and gradually Guy begins to see the world through her eyes. Her rag-tag little band of friends support her as best they can; Billy, the huge, tattooed owner of a failing music shop who lets her play her beloved piano whenever she likes; Reza, her flirtatious flatmate who offers to seduce anyone who stands in their way, and a strange and unexpectedly musical bank manager, who finances the studio session which is, they are all convinced, going to make Guy famous.

The whole show is set in a brilliantly authentic, dusty, nicotine stained pub, which is open before the show and during the interval, complete with fiddle playing and whirling dancers. This pub, thanks to some simple set alterations, clever lighting and inspired choreography, becomes Guy’s flat, Girl’s flat, the Bank Manager’s office, the recording studio and the seaside. The scene where Guy and Girl stand on a hilltop in the dark, looking down onto the bright lights of Dublin Town was very effective.

Through it all, of course, is the music. The actors rarely leave the stage, instead sitting around the edge with their instruments, ready to accompany each musical number. The rousing, toe-tapping Irish tunes were wonderful, as were the energetic Eastern-European numbers, but the main numbers, after the first four or five, became a little interchangeable, with their navel-gazing depression and student-y acoustic guitar. The dancing was breathtaking and again, splendidly choreographed. The dancers whirled, stamped, shimmied and leapt across the stage, on the bar and on tables, each actor throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the performance with infectious joy.

Performances all round were superb; Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic as Guy and Girl were intense and believable. Unfortunately their characters often appeared less sympathetic than those of the supporting roles. Girl is occasionally a little bossy and strident, and it is impossible to forget that she has practically abandoned her adorable daughter to the care of her mother in order to run around with a man she has just met. Guy is something of a cipher; a typically “Oirish” musician stereotype, all designer stubble, checked shirt, jeans and soulful taciturnity. You do occasionally wonder what the vital, energetic Girl sees in this rather drippy young man, but their scenes together were sweet and sensitive. John Tiffany directed them well; using silences as well as words to convey the feeling between them, twisting nimbly away every time the sentiment threatened to become sickly. The other characters were layered and likeable; Jez Unwin as the Bank Manager and Aidan Kelly as Billy the music shop owner were wonderfully comic, as was the magnificent Valda Aviks as Girl’s mother. Guy’s Da was sensitively played by Michael O Connor. For me the star of the show was Jos Slovik as Andre, Girl’s flatmate, with his lucky suit and his poignant, burning desire to conquer the Fast Food business.

The principal problem with this musical is the length of it; the story, whilst affecting, is simply not strong enough to warrant around 100 minutes of performance time. However  the warmth and humour of the script and of the performances  make this a special, original and touching play, and one which you will not quickly forget.

Review by Genni Trickett

9th April 2013

Author

  • Genni Trickett

    Genni is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows. Genni has been passionate about theatre from an early age, performing in various productions throughout school and university. She is currently an enthusiastic member of an amateur dramatic society in South West London. Her favourite thing about living in London is the breath-taking variety of shows and theatrical talent. https://www.facebook.com/genevieve.trickett

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