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Once the Musical at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester

This revival of Once the Musical has a different feel to its previous West End incarnation – the Irish pub backdrop is replaced with a live music stage look. The set, lighting and sound designs combine to achieve the atmosphere of a rowdy but not too rowdy gig venue – there are moments of banter in the dialogue but the style of the musical numbers, while varied, is never of the ear-splitting variety: the volume is cranked up when the occasion calls for it, but one doesn’t exactly leave the theatre with ringing in one’s ears.

Cast of Once the Musical, Photo by Alex Tabrizi.
Cast of Once the Musical, Photo by Alex Tabrizi.

Guy (Tomas Wolstenholme) meets Girl (Sarah Moss) – there are guys named Guy but I’ve yet to meet a young lady called Girl – and while the world may have changed considerably since the 2007 film on which this musical is based, the storyline retains considerable relevance. It also remains a different story to the sort of relationship narratives usually told on stage. Boundaries between Guy and Girl are respected: for one thing, Girl has a husband in the Czech Republic, and while Guy has split up with his girlfriend, his own musical compositions are largely if not entirely about her. Girl encourages the rekindling of their relationship, as Guy is clearly miserable without his ex, and a musical theatre happy ending is implied rather than explicitly dramatized.

Once isn’t Once without actor-musicianship, and the Dublin setting makes the idea of a bank manager (Toby Bradford) picking up a guitar and singing a tune of his own, in working hours, less implausible than it would be if the show were set elsewhere. Girl, her roommates, and her family are Czech, though there’s considerably less actual Czech than there was a decade ago in the London production. The on-stage translated text is, however, still necessary and is presented imaginatively.

Losing around fifteen minutes from the running time of the West End production has its benefits – this is a tighter, brisker theatrical experience. I’ll leave it to those with a fanatical knowledge of each and every scene to work out what has been cut and/or speeded up, suffice to say I couldn’t detect any of the salient narrative points missing in this version. The songs are all there, as are all the details, down to Girl’s roommate Andrej (Harry Curley) somehow presuming he’s going to get the job he’s being interviewed for, and Svec (Thomas Fabian Parrish) and Reza (Amy Bastani), picking up Irish accents and idioms from the RTÉ television soap opera Fair City (an actual show).

The highs and lows of city living are laid bare – it’s wonderful when everyone gets together and gets along, and rather less so when there’s friction in the room. Some excellent use is made of the stage space, which every so often extends several rows down the centre aisle of the theatre. Guy and Girl’s intimate and poignant moments are balanced out by David Shute’s Billy, a larger than life character, injecting lairy humour into the proceedings.

Girl’s enthusiastic nature is charming, as Moss plays her, and never irritating, which contrasts well with Guy’s more moody disposition (which is also never irritating), in ways some may find more than a little contrived. The opening number, meanwhile, is wrought with emotion to the point where it’s overcooked: Girl’s forthrightness that follows it is refreshing. This production does well to demonstrate how music can be powerful enough to change people’s lives for the better. I suppose regular attendees of musical theatre productions already knew that, but this stirring and delightful revival is a useful reminder.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The play is based on the hugely successful 2006 musical film of the same name written and directed by John Carney, former bassist for Irish band The Frames. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s song “Falling Slowly” received a 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song and the soundtrack as a whole also received a Grammy nomination. Once is a modern-day musical about a busker and an immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin. They write, rehearse and scrape together enough money to record a demo album with a motley crew of bar friends, in a collaboration that evolves into a powerful, very complicated but beautiful love story. Guy is an Irish singer and songwriter who spends his days fixing vacuums in the Dublin shop he runs with his father, and his nights playing his music in local pubs. He is on the verge of giving up music altogether when a Czech immigrant, “Girl,” walks into the bar, hears him play and refuses to let him abandon his guitar. As it turns out, she has a broken vacuum cleaner, Guy repairs it, and she pays him in music on a piano she plays in a record shop. Over the course of a week, the Girl convinces Guy to believe in the power of his music and his love for the woman who inspired his songs.

03 JUL – 12 AUG 2023

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