I was recently lucky enough to win tickets to see Once the musical. I did not know much about it other than it had won several Tony Awards during it’s first year on Broadway (this has only just passed its first anniversary) and I had heard a couple of the tracks.
A few people I know had visited the Broadway production and come home raving about it and so the arrival of Once to the UK has been eagerly awaited by many of the theatrical community.
I travelled to London on Friday to see it during the preview week while desperately hoping that the competition win was genuine. I needn’t have worried, the Phoenix Theatre (on Charing Cross Road) box office had my details and I was able to collect my tickets with no fuss.
I met up with my plus one Holly who was one of my friends to have seen the show and loved it previously and we had been told of the ‘pre-show hootenanny’ so went to investigate. Said hootenanny consisted of a fully costumed cast on stage playing some Irish tunes on their particular instrument (more on this later) and singing along. Audience members were invited up on stage to buy a drink from the bar and to watch.
I loved this touch. It was a great experience to see the audience filling up and to be on a west end stage, after all, it is not something most of us get to do every day. It also felt really intimate and involved, as if we were a part of the show.
The cast stayed on stage playing until the house lights dipped and as the show began, the members who were not directly involved in the first scene took their seats at the side of the stage. It then became apparent that there was no orchestra, that each cast member would be playing a dual role in the production as band and character.
The only other production I have seen to do this was a touring production of Sweeney Todd and I thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of that both at the time and again on seeing Once. It also gave me even more respect for the performers as it is hard enough to do any one of acting, singing or playing well and these guys did the lot and did it flawlessly.
What struck me most was the simplicity of the whole thing. This is not in any way a negative, its just that I have rarely seen a show with such a simple plot. There is a guy and a girl and it is all about the relationship between them. The very essence of life and something everyone can relate to, it really is as basic as that.
Yet the story is told so beautifully by Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl) that immediately you develop an empathy towards these characters and you can feel the chemistry and emotion between these two strangers brought together by music.
The score is beautiful (and the most complicated part of this production). There is an Irish feel all the way through it but at times it is almost ethereal in sound. I loved Falling Slowly the minute I heard it (prior to seeing this) but Bennett and Cvitesic absolutely do it justice. Stunning. There is not a bad piece within the music and having the cast playing the tunes at times gave a more intimate sense than I feel you get with an orchestra. I really felt as though at times I was interrupting and intruding on something private.
The set was simple – the only changes were the addition of tables and chairs or the odd other prop (such as a piano or vacuum cleaner) but the clever use of lighting made it clear whenever there was a new scene and this worked and was in keeping with the minimalism of the production.
I was not sure what I was expecting but I did not expect it to be so funny, nor did I expect the tears I found myself shedding. I thought each member of the cast was strong, my favourite other than Bennett and Cvitesic being Aidan Kelly who played Billy.
Kelly, with a strong Irish accent, brought a lot of the humour into the show, but everyone had their place and helped to make Once so ‘real’. All characters were established quickly and easily and the show flowed well, in places linking scenes together with the ensemble performing short routines and choreographed movements.
Despite the plot being the least complicated of any I’ve seen, I loved it. It’s extremely touching and I am glad that it has not been made more complex. It is amazing to me that this show seems to create new boundaries for musical theatre and yet it does not need lavish sets or fancy costumes to do so. I have a feeling that Once could be one of the best shows in quite some time.
I do not want to give any more away but it is because of our love of music that we go to see these productions and it is through music that Once creates a sweet, truthful and wonderful production. Do not be put off by my comments about the simplicity of it all, once you hear the music you will be drawn in and keeping it simple is the best thing director John Tiffany could have done.
There is so much I could say about this show. I do not wish to spoil it for anyone considering going. But a well deserved standing ovation was received by a noticeably silent throughout audience and I recommend that everyone goes to see it. Bravo to all involved.