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Review of Once musical Phoenix Theatre London

Once CastI’m going to be totally honest and admit that I am a big Once fan. When whispers came from Broadway about the show I immediately watched the film… and burst into tears.  So when tickets came on sale for the London West End production I bought them, watched it… and burst into tears.

This is my second viewing; the tears are still flowing and still can’t quite tell you why.

Once is the simple story of guy meets girl, and that’s the only cliché you’re going to get. Guy is an Irish busker whose broken heart has caused him to “stop”. Girl is a Czech immigrant whose perky optimism hides her own inner turmoil.  Together, through music they work to heal each other’s wounds.

But if you think this is a story of love healing all then you’re sorely mistaken.

Once is a unique theatrical experience. The set, dressed as a pub has a working bar open to the audience before the show and during the interval. As you stand on stage the cast come out and begin playing their instruments (because they also double as the band). They keep playing long after you’ve been shepherded to your seats, transitioning seamlessly into the start of the show.

All barriers are now broken. Let a truly intimate journey begin.

The music of Once, both powerful and beautiful, is the star of the show. It’s traditional folk style giving an air of comforting familiarity to songs that are deeply personal. They’re not there for narrative; they’re there for emotional depth. Though it is entirely believable it was written by the characters it never feels forced like a jukebox musical.

Of course, this sublime music wouldn’t work without two excellent leads to carry it through.

Declan Bennett keeps on the right side of maudlin, he’s broken but not depressed, optimistic but for all the wrong reasons. He’s plays the role with a little-boy-lost quality that keeps the audience sympathetic towards him.

Zrinka Cvitešić, as the ever positive Girl, steers the character away from irritating by layering her with an inner pain. She is given many of the best lines, the closest the show comes to zingers. But when backs are turned and the mask is lifted, that’s when we see a performance that is truly magical.

The rest of cast transition from supporting roles to chorus to orchestra, a technique that really binds the music to the action. Their movements are almost balletic, bringing life to a minimal set, which they never leave. They sit at the sides as locations are created using tables, chairs and spotlights.

This is not so much musical theatre, but theatre about music.

Once is one of the most intimate and personal shows on the West End stage at the moment. Me, and my companion for the night left highly emotional, as did half the audience. I especially choked up during the song “Sleeping”, which rivals the Oscar winning “Falling Slowly” for emotional power.

I’ve long since learnt that theatre will never have a universal appeal, but Once is that rare show that deserves to be given a chance by everybody.

Review by Max Sycamore @Pheatreland

Thursday 19th September 2013



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