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by on 10 January 2020

Craic and Broken Hearts


by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, based the film by John Carney

Adam Spiegel, Robert Bartner, The New Wolsey Theatre and Queen’s Theatre at The Ashcroft Playhouse, Fairfield Halls, Croydon until 11th January, then on tour until 25th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Restraint is a word used much more than once in the wonderfully romantic piece of folk whimsy, Once. If restraint seems unapt a word for a musical, especially one that starts pre-show with full-on foot tapping folk rock band, then think again. Think Riverdance meets Brief Encounter.

In various manifestations, Once has jigged its sprightly way around five continents over the last decade. It started life as an Oscar winning film by John Carney, which had originally been released in 2007. In an adaption by Irish playwright, Enda Walsh, it then took off as a stage musical and it has rapidly developed something of a cult following. Croydon is debuting its first ever UK Tour and the some of the audience at the press night were showing off fanfolds of tickets to follow it throughout 2020. Certainly for these aficionados once is not enough for Once.

Once is a gentle love story, it is about taking courage and believing in oneself, it is about the power of music.

If music is the driving force of the plot of Once, it certainly gets a turbo-charged start. Cast and audience immediately enjoy the craic at a pre-show party that extend from stage to stalls and on, as sixteen musicians burst a lively fire-cracker of Irish folk music, the fidgeting fiddles set against soothing squeeze-boxes, pounding feet against honeyed harmonies, humming and keening against whoops and shouts, joyous and jolly. Remarkably, though, these talented musicians are also the talented actors who will tell us the story of Once.

Once 14

The lights fade down, but the party continues; then with the house lights out, the fiddles become violins, the music lyrical and the soft story starts. The basis of the plot is fairly simple: boy meets girl, but both are already committed to another; they fall in love; girl helps boy to fulfil his aspirations, boy helps girl to regain security; both regain their committed significant others; boy and girl part, their love unconsummated. What make this simple plot special is the gentleness; that the two never lose their place in their own cultures, and they remain bound together by a common love of music. In fact, to paraphrase, they make music, not make love.

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That music surrounds the pair’s attraction is the consummately presented theme in both director, Peter Rowe’s concept and Libby Watson’s design. The musician-actors are always there, a physical presence “greyed-out” from the action when not active in it, always there to play music, dance or sing; and more importantly, always there as their cultures, their communities, always ready to support each other. (Were all communities so supportive!)

Watson’s set is a corner of a Dublin pub, the music corner, adorned with framed music memorabilia and gig posters. It is the sort of pub where the locals often have an impromptu “Trad Sesh” where folk music and indie rock combine, mics are open, and everyone contributes. Other settings are created within the arms of the pub, by trucking or carrying on features for the interior of a flat or a shop. In the ceiling of the pub are roof-lights, but the whole roof may lift off to reveal the wide world of a night sky. Projection designer, Peter Hazelwood, creates some wonderful skyscapes, including a soulful crescent moon, and Mark Dymock’s lighting design is so precisely integrated to the whole that lights dance with the ensemble and a floor mounted starcloth becomes Dublin by night.

Once 8

The plot is so much a boy-meets-girl story that the pair are called Guy and simply Girl. As the opening ceilidh dies down, we see Guy as lovelorn and dispirited, singing Leave, a lament for his lost love, now living in New York. Girl approaches him and brightly, if disarmingly, asks him “Do you enjoy being Irish”. We discover that she is a Czech émigré from a musical family, whereas his business is “hoofers”, he runs a vacuum cleaner repair shop with his “Da”. Soon a deal is struck, he will repair her old upright Hoover, and she will pay him by playing him music on an old upright piano in the music shop above which she lives.

Once 2Daniel Healy is a natural as Guy (and has also been a composer and a busker), a man a crossroads in his life. His slightly husky tone works brilliantly with the melancholia of his songs. You can hear the catch in his voice in Leave. The elfin Emma Lucia plays Girl with a vivacious direct charm. She sings her own solo The Hill with such appealing clarity that it leaves the audience mesmerised. The centrepiece for many in the audience is the Oscar winning duet Falling Slowly, and their richly complementary voices leave all enthralled. It is almost as if the audience falls for these characters before they realise that they are falling for each other.

Once 6

The music shop is owned by the fiercely protective eccentric Billy. Billy is not so much a loose cannon as a whole wonky ordnance. The loose-limbed Dan Bottomley has great fun playing up the loveable fire-eater. With his not-yet-perfected karate, Billy is willing to die for his friends. He has two pet hates, Corkonians and bankers. When he meets his seeming nemesis, Bank Manager, who comes from Cork, sparks fly. A superb violinist, Samuel Peverley plays Bank Manager not so much as gravel-voiced as tarmac-voiced, but has the great comic virtuoso solo, Abandoned in Bandon, which rescues the character from being merely the stooge to Billy.

There is a lot of, albeit big-hearted, stereotyping, especially when Girl introduces Guy to her extended Czech family. The ex-pats are learning (Irish-) English from RTE television sit-coms, so to help the audience their words are projected as surtitles … in Czech, a nice reversal of norms. The Czech family offer a host of wonderful cameos. Reza is a brazen go-getter in a scarlet mini-skirt (woolly leggings under), willing to use her charms in winning ways, for example to get Billy to use his shop as rehearsal space for their scratch music group when they are preparing to help Guy make a demo-disc. Ellen Chivers has a superb singing voice and she plays the part of Reza with great aplomb, tossing her blonde pony-tail to move the music and tease the men. Svec is the stout-hearted oak of the family, a heavy-metal drummer willing to sacrifice his art to the folk style by using his trousers to muffle the drums. With giant stage presence, Lloyd Gorman seizes the role of Svec, plus he gives us a rousingly impressive drum solo. The matriarch of the family is Baruska. Susannah van den Berg, who last exhibited her coloratura locally as a larger than life Queen of Hearts (in the Rose Theatre’s Alice in Winterland) excels as Baruska, pushing Guy’s pre-business-finance visit to a fine melodrama, culminating in “Those how live in fear, die in their graves!” She is also a very accomplished accordion player. Rosalind Ford, who plays Guy’s Ex-Girlfriend, dances and sings whilst playing a cello that seeming floats with her.

However, it does seem a little disingenuous to praise up individual performances from what is a seamless ensemble, which is constantly engaged with the storytelling, a benign Greek chorus. The ensemble is not only multi-talented but generous in its common creativity, seamless in its faultless acting, seamless in its dancing (unobtrusively choreographed by Francesca Jaynes), seamless in musicianship and seamless in its singing. The a cappella reprise of Gold was another show-stopping highlight.

Once 5Nevertheless, in this now-you-see-it now-you-don’t, but never-to-be love affair, the most intense moments are quieter, reflective ones, when the poignancy that marks out this musical as being special comes into its own. These are moments of discovery between the two would-be lovers, and the revelations. Girl has a husband who has gone back home leaving her with their young daughter (played with great confidence on press night by Isabella Manning). Guy asks why he left, but Girl ignores the question to say Miluju tě, untranslated but meaning I love you.

Loneliness lurks just around the corner, but the demo disc is in the bag and the airline ticket in the pocket. Why complicate matters?

“It’s a complicated thing, this love” says Billy. But don’t you show restraint, for this bittersweet and idiosyncratic musical is one you should see once … then you will want to see Once once more.

Mark Aspen
January 2020

Photography by Mark Senior

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