"Simplicity, charm and air of sweet melancholy."
-The Guardian-

"A genuine surprise, simple and affecting"
-What's On Stage-

"The bed-wetters’ musical..."
-The Daily Telegraph-

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A well-crafted and genuine musical

Critic Rating

4 December 2014, Phoenix Theatre
Vicki Vicki
Once has been a musical triumph since starting on Broadway in 2011 and then beginning its West End run in 2013. It’s won a staggering 8 Tony Awards, 2 Oliviers and even a Grammy for the Best Musical Theatre Album. But despite all its success there is an end for everything, and sadly the London production is closing in March. But that’s not before Irish heartthrob Ronan Keating gets his hands on the lead role. Once is going out with a bang, not a whimper.

For those who have somehow avoided the hype, Once tells the story a talented singer songwriter called Guy who has given up on music because a girl broke his heart. Enter Girl with a capital G – a gutsy Czech who convinces Guy to carry on playing. Her influence is huge and he goes from abandoning his guitar in the street to forming a successful band in a couple of days.

It can look more than a little desperate when a production bags a celebrity at the end of its run. But here it makes complete sense to have Keating as the male lead; he’s a Dublin born singer playing a Dublin born singer. His voice is surprisingly raw and fits perfectly with the character of Guy, and although he isn’t a trained actor his performance is pretty spot on. He plays Guy with a good amount of desperation; his opening number, ‘Leave’, was powerful and tender and he was convincingly upset about his recent break up.

But sadly the focus is mostly on him and it leaves Jill Winternitz a little left out of the action. This isn’t remotely Winternitz’s fault as she makes an excellent Girl - it’s the danger of having a celeb in the show. People will inevitably go just to see them, and what was a musical with two leads becomes a show with one.

Saying that, Once isn’t entirely an ego massage for Ronan. The music is undoubtedly the best thing about the production. Many of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s songs are taken from the film which inspired the show, including the Academy Award-winning duet ‘Falling Slowly’. Each song is inspired by Irish folk music, which is mostly traditional and played with a lot of passion, but can sometimes get a little close to Mumford and Sons twee for my liking.

The Dublin pub setting is beautiful and extremely well considered, with grubby pub mirrors facing the audience so that you can always see a performer even when their back is turned. You can also go up to the on-stage bar for a drink at the start (if you’re lucky enough to be sat in the Stalls) and watch the cast perform some songs.

Ronan may have packed out the Phoenix Theatre with a gaggle of middle aged mums, but this is still a production which manages to hold style and substance. It’s been refreshing to have such a well-crafted and genuine musical on the West End for the past two years and I expect that many more will come along because of it.

Where I sat: I sat in B17 of the Stalls. This isn’t actually as far forward as I thought it would be, there’s a nice amount of space between the stage and the front row so I didn’t have to crane my neck too much to see.

Recommended for: Obviously I’d heartily recommend Once to fans of Ronan Keating, he’s been very well cast and gives a solid performance.

Once is not enough!

Critic Rating

10 April 2013, Phoenix Theatre
Rebecca Rebecca
As soon as I heard that Once is based on the real life romance between Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who wrote the songs for the show, I was sold! I am a big fan of all things romance so when I heard the show was transferring from an extremely successful run on Broadway (it bagged itself a whopping 8 Tony Awards) I was ready to be swept up in the latest love story to hit the West End. After a night of fighting back many a tear I am happy to report that, whilst I may have been left feeling a little heartbroken, I was definitely not disappointed.

At the beginning, Once took some getting used to. There is an onstage bar at which audience members can buy a drink before the show (well, if they have a spare £9.50…)This felt a little gimmicky to me, but perhaps I was just jealous as I was sat in the Dress Circle and couldn’t join in with the fun. Humph. All of the onstage action happens against the bar backdrop with simple lighting effects differentiating between scenes and spaces. Once I had adjusted to this device I found it to be pretty affective in depicting (if a little stereotypically) the Dublin setting of the show. The simplicity of the set also made the moment that “Guy” and “Girl” stand on top of the bar and look down on “Dublin” really effective.

By all means Once is not perfect. There are some extremely questionable movement sequences that fundamentally do not work and should be cut immediately. For example the awkward head drops and hand raises in the bank scene and the GCSE drama style headphones movements as Girl listens to Guy’s demo. These need to go as they completely undermine the excellent scene change movements which actually have a purpose and function.

As much as I absolutely detested a small number of the shows movement sequences, these are minor moments in the production and can (and should) be changed. Ultimately the show is all about music and the emotions and alliances it can invoke. The music and lyrics live up to absolutely all the hype and I found their combination to be captivating and beautiful. Once is not like traditional musical theatre, it is more like being at a live folk gig with an entertaining story between ballads. And as stories go, whilst it is not particularly groundbreaking, I think it is pretty strong and engaging.

Once is the musical for the Mumford and Sons generation. Fans of traditional musical theatre may feel a little disappointed at the lack of 11 o’clock numbers and jazz hands, however for me the shows success lies in the fact that it has done something different with the traditional sound of musical theatre and it has made it work. My advice would be to go along and experience the show for yourself. Oh, and if you happen to be a hopeless romantic like me, remember to take a tissue.

Michael Billington
But it's the staging that for me makes the evening work beautifully. Songs erupt naturally from the action, helped by the fact that the cast all play a variety of instruments including fiddle, guitar, drums, accordion and mandolin. The actor-musicians also effortlessly become characters in the story with striking contributions from Michael O'Connor as Guy's ruminative dad, Jez Unwin as a musical bank-manager and Flora Spencer-Longhurst as a bouncing Czech. Above all, Crowley's design of a curving Dublin bar festooned with mirrors allows you to catch fragments of a floor-pattern or a face in a way that matches the elliptical story-telling.

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Michael Coveney
Director John Tiffany and designer Bob Crowley have taken the film off the Dublin streets and into a big, brown, lamp lit Dublin boozer, fitted out with mirrors and portraits, where Declan Bennett’s Guy – much less wired, abrasive and irritating than composer Glen Hansard in the movie – and beautiful Croatian actress [Zrinka Cvitešiæ]’s Girl – play out their off-kilter love story. One risk that almost backfires badly is the over-deliberate pacing, so that the show comes down only fifteen minutes shy of three hours. There’s a merry ceilidh-style prologue with audience members mingling on the stage supping pints, then the Dad character (Michael O’Connor) recites a Patrick Kavanagh poem and you start to wonder if the blessed thing will ever start...There is a theatrical fluency to proceedings the film lacked, but no skimping on the rawness of the songs.

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Charles Spencer
Like Coldplay, it is lip-quiveringly sensitive, almost ostentatiously sincere and hugely successful...The tone is bitter-sweet, like a modern-day Brief Encounter. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who both starred in the film, are mostly sad, wistful and melodic, though they sometimes build up a head of steam and become downright anguished. Think Van Morrison on one of his less-inspired days and you will get some idea of what’s on offer. There is a genuine tenderness between the main couple, though neither Declan Bennett nor Zrinka Civitesic prove quite as touching as the stars of the film.

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