LBO Review: Once

LBO Review: Once

Originally published on London Box Office

Normally when a family member comes to stay, I inwardly groan. Now that’s not because I don’t love my family, but it does seem to be hard work taking tourists around the city of London. My flatmate on the other hand has a much more relaxed family, so when her sister came to stay with us I was excited at having another person to go to the theatre with. Not only an artistic soul like us, she is also applying for drama schools at the moment to do stage management and so was more than happy to tag along and pass comment on a musical with me. She really seemed the perfect choice to take along to the Phoenix Theatre and watch an Olivier award-winning musical before wandering to get a drink at half time from the on-stage bar and soak up the atmosphere.

Once the Musical exploded onto the Broadway stage in 2012, winning 8 Tony Awards before it transferred across the pond to the West End a year later. Based on an independent film of the same name from 2006, it tells the story of the Guy (David Hunter), an Irish busker who is on the verge of giving up on music altogether until he meets the Girl (Jill Winternitz), a Czech woman who takes a liking to his songs and pushes him to keep following his dream. Past relationships are brought up afresh as Guy and Girl slowly fall for each other (despite trying to resist) whilst pursuing the challenge of turning Guy’s music into a demo and get him to New York.

The thing that I love the most about this musical is how everything has been stripped back and simplified, almost to reflect the low-budget independent film that it stemmed from. The main two characters don’t have names, almost as if that detail isn’t important to the story. The set has no automatic moving scenery and is all set against an Irish pub backdrop, with the cast members themselves moving furniture around as is needed to depict each scene (clever designs here from Bob Crowley). Not only that, but the cast members also form the entire orchestra and stay on stage for pretty much the entire performance. When not in the scene itself, they sit on stools around the peripherals of the stage, adding to the intimate atmosphere and playing on a variety of eclectic instruments – a harmonica, accordion, ukelele and even a mandolin make the music seem authentic, acoustic and more heartfelt. It isn’t difficult to see why the music is the star of this franchise (thanks to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), with the film winning an Oscar for Best Song and the musical winning both Tony and Olivier awards for its music. The songs, the lyrics, the orchestration and the atmosphere that this musical creates is intimate, personal and overflowing with emotion that tugged at the audience’s heartstrings and struck all the right chords.

Now I have a confession to make, this review wasn’t the first time I saw this musical. I am more than happy to see great musicals like this more than once and it didn’t lose any of the magic in the second viewing, but I did find myself comparing both casts to each other (as a critic how could I not?). The Guy (Hunter) and the Girl (Winternitz) both had great voices and a great chemistry when together, but on their own were not as strong as the originators of the London roles (Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić). Winternitz in particular was a bit more awkward and lacked the comic timing of Cvitešić; this was apparent in one of her solo songs ‘The Hill’, but following an Olivier-award winning performance can’t be easy. The stand-out performance actually came from Billy (Tim Prottey-Jones), who had a great comic chemistry with Guy (Hunter) and who always got the biggest laughs from the audience.

Of course, the original songs are the stars of this production (have I said how much I loved the songs yet?). When singing together the cast exuded musicality and the harmonies were all perfect – they seemed so comfortable with the songs that even when the Guy’s (Hunter) guitar strings broke at the end of ‘Say It To Me Now’ no-one was phased; the Bank Manager (Jez Unwin) was even quick enough to turn the event to comic advantage.

I have to say I love the way this musical makes me feel afterwards – the acoustic sound is not dissimilar to music acts that I have loved over the last 10 years (Mumford & Sons, Ben Howard and Damien Rice immediately spring to mind) and can make you feel warm and cuddly one minute and emotionally drained the next. It just didn’t quite hold the magic of the first performance for me, so close but slightly lacking in the two main characters.