A well-crafted and genuine musical
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!
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.