“Once the Musical”

at the Phoenix Theatre, Thursday 4th April 2013

*The performance reviewed was a preview*

From the moment the audience enters the Phoenix Theatre’s auditorium, we are invited up onto the stage, decked out like an Irish pub whose owner has a fetish for pictures and lamps. This decision is partly cynical – why only fleece punters of £4-odd quid for a pint when you can charge £6.80 for a view of the stalls and a cheap plastic cup? – but there’s also an interesting line being blurred here between fiction and reality. Around fifteen minutes before the advertised start time, a group of musicians enters and begins playing popular folk music from Irish and central European traditions with a few audience members still surrounding them (wondering why the hell they just spent seven quid on a pint I imagine). Five minutes before ‘curtain-up’, stage managers enter to remove the stairs leading onto the stage whilst the musicians continue, apparently unaware of what’s going on around them. An older gentleman (Michael O’Connor) then begins a rendition of “On Raglan Road”  and the audience hushes. The house-lights, however, don’t dim until a few songs later, during Declan Bennett’s performance of “Leave.

I give such an extensive description of the opening of Once in the hope that it starts to convey the complications and levels surrounding fiction and reality in John Tiffany’s production. Based on John Carney’s 2006 film, Enda Walsh’s new text adds to the original narrative (which is not much more than a “will-they-won’t-they” story) in order to draw out a thread commenting on theatricality and the presentation of reality, whilst in a theatre context Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music and lyrics comment on the nature of music itself whilst retaining the beauty they had in the original film.

The narrative itself can be described as either perilously thin or gorgeously simplistic dependent upon one’s tastes, for it is literally a Guy meets Girl (as credited in the programme) love story. The Guy, a struggling Irish musician without much ambition, is kicked into gear when he meets a Czech Girl, who helps him rediscover his passion for music. They both have loved ones across oceans, but fall for each other and express their emotions through music.

With such a simple plot, then, it is no wonder that Tiffany has chosen to stage Once in such a way that creates theatrical as well as dramatic intrigue, for quite often the way in which a scene is created is just as interesting as what is happening. By placing the locus of the piece in a pub, Tiffany asks us to consider the way in which these stories are told, probing the idea that this is Just Another Love Story by presenting it in a way which makes us see it differently. The blurred boundaries of fiction and reality established early on return time and again, as we sometimes see a pub on a stage with pieces of furniture being moved around randomly and at others find it easy to imagine a recording studio, a music shop or a small bedroom.

Bob Crowley’s design builds on this by ensuring the pub is, as it were, not quite real. The element of fantasy created by the multiple lamps and pictures is supported by the fact that, behind the low wall of the set, we can see a towering brick wall and the workings of the theatre. I often find mirrors on stage tacky (“Ooh, clever, we’re looking at ourselves!”), but here a well placed mirror up-stage centre is not used for that purpose. Instead, Natasha Katz’ subtle lighting design means the images created on stage are simply re-framed by this mirror, so that we get two angles on scenes, which together with the theatre-in-widescreen of Crowley’s set harks back to Carney’s film.

Steven Hoggett choreography (“movement” in the programme) also adheres to this line-blurring, and in his trademark style lies somewhere between gesture and dance. The true brilliance of the choreography in this show is that it is mostly slipped in without us really noticing, blending with Crowley’s design and Tiffany’s staging to create subtle stage images. In one moment, for example, a character (Andre) falls onto the stage in a heap, full with emotion after failing to get a promotion. Guy and Girl then head up to a platform behind the main set, with a background of deep blue, as in front Andre’s jacket and the bar twinkle with LEDs, creating an image of a seascape with minimal fuss.

One of the greatest things about Hansard and Irglova’s score is that it doesn’t sound like it’s From A Musical. And by that I mean, it’s easy to have the soundtrack on in the background and work to it, for it is (on the whole) stand-alone songs woven into a narrative. Considering the basic premise of Guy and Girl as music makers, the songs stand as metaphors rather than plot devices in themselves. Each song, composed from variations of violins, guitars, drums, piano and accordions, is played and sung entirely by cast members, who either sit at the side or become part of the action. The style, too, pays homage to the folk revival of recent years (even though most songs were written for the 2007 movie), finding in traditional culture a stability which is difficult to come across in an unstable world.

Though most of the music and lyrics are sentimental, there is only one moment when it comes across as cheesy. When our two protagonists (Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić) play together in a music shop for the first time, it does feel a little bit too much like that dreadful Match.com advert. It’s a shame because the song – “Falling Slowly” – is sort of the show’s anthem (when it gets going, it’s properly good), and the opening few moments of the pair singing together on their instruments somewhat tarnishes the tune itself. Another good song, “If You Want Me“, sees Cvitešić working out her feelings towards her new friend, and is haunting in performance, featuring a simple piece of pedestrianised choreography including the female cast members, each with headphones over their ears, pained by their loves. It’s followed – after a comic interlude – by the Guy’s own expressions in “Say It To Me Now“, which might actually be my favourite song in the show. All the various emotions, motifs and styles then come together when the pair form a band with their friends and belt out “When Your Mind’s Made Up“, creating a musical climax alongside the dramatic one.

Once isn’t that breed of instant-gratification musical – or instant-gratification theatre for that matter. The moment I left the theatre last week, I was pretty underwhelmed by the whole thing after expecting – from reports – that I would be really properly wowed by the whole thing; my issues with the opening and general sentimentality of the piece were hard to shift. But I haven’t been able to get the thing out of my head all weekend. Moments keep playing back to me and the soundtrack is on a constant loop. After struggling to place what Once was about, I realised through hours of thinking that it theatricalises those moments in life which seem untellable, when it’s hard to tell what was real and what was not.

One of the main selling points of Once is that it is “not like other musicals”, and though this isn’t quite true the idea in itself is a seductive one. For though Tiffany doesn’t exactly destroy convention, he does his bit to chip away at certain ideas and in doing so creates an honest, intelligent and subtle production which doesn’t fail to make you feel something. And, remarkably, the prevailing emotion that Once creates is similar to the central premise of its staging; where did reality end and the fiction begin?

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