Once - review

Phoenix, London

Musicals these days tend to batter you into submission. This one, winner of eight Tony awards and based on a 2006 low-budget movie by John Carney that I have deliberately avoided seeing, wins you over with its simplicity, charm and air of sweet melancholy.

But, although it dispenses with flying sets, high-kicking chorines and orchestral bombardment, it is anything but artless: in fact it owes its success not just to its versatile performers but to the quiet brilliance of John Tiffany's direction and Bob Crowley's design.

Tiffany's first bright idea is to get audience members to go on stage for a drink and listen to what looks like an improvised bar-room ceilidh created by the cast. Bawdy songs blend with sad ballads and, before we know where we are, we are into the main action. Guy, a Dublin busker, is singing a number about unrequited love which strikes a chord with a Czech émigré simply known as Girl. She does a deal whereby she offers to play piano for him if he repairs her vacuum cleaner. Over the following five days we see her rescuing Guy from his self-absorbed misery, forcing him to raise the funds to make a demo-tape of his music and inevitably falling more than a little in love with him.

The show retains the songs written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for the movie but has a newly expanded book by Enda Walsh. Given Walsh's penchant in plays like Disco Pigs and The Walworth Farce for a manic verbal exuberance, what is startling here is not just the economy of the language but even the use of silence: there's a scene on a Dublin hilltop full of unspoken love between Guy and Girl where the pauses are of a length that even Harold Pinter might have envied. Admittedly there are times when the Czech heroine irritates slightly with her folk-wisdom and secret sadness (would it hurt her, I wondered, just to give Guy a kiss?). But Walsh sends up the story's tendency to over-solemnity. I loved the moment when Guy announces to a group of Dublin drinkers: "This is a song I wrote", to which the only response is a cynical: "Aw, fuck."

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.

Instead of the usual industrial spectacle what we get is a musical about people and life's missed opportunities. Declan Bennett is very good as Guy: surly, guarded yet capable of punching across a song as in the opening song, Leaving. And Zrinka Cvitešić, a Croatian classical actor, redeems the heroine's winsomeness by stressing her tenderness and vulnerability: when she and Bennett join forces in the climactic reprise of Falling Slowly, it would take a very stony heart not to respond. It is, in short, an unusual musical in its stress on pure emotion and its apparent informality. But don't be fooled: it may not wear its art on its sleeve but it is most cunningly contrived.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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