Review: ONCE The Musical

ONCE has travelled a long way – from Glen Hansard’s low-budget film, to the Oscars, to a musical on the bright lights of Broadway. After winning eight Tony awards last year, ONCE has finally made its European premiere at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. Hansard’s creation tells the story of a Northside busker and a young Czech mother who are drawn together by their love of music and song writing.

Adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh, ONCE defies all the stereotypical characteristics of a musical. It lacks dramatic musical sequences or a sense of showbiz. Instead the songs wouldn’t be out of place at an open-mic night, with a lot of acoustic guitar and raw vocals from Guy (Declan Bennet). These guitar riffs are encouraged and accompanied by Girl (Zrinka Cvitešić) on piano. The music perfectly reflects the unlikely union between the gruff Dubliner who has become jaded with life and the straight-talking Czech girl who is determined they will write music and ‘make something of themselves’.

The production begins as the audience enters the theatre with the cast already on stage playing music and dancing against a back drop of a typical Dublin pub. For the viewer, this creates the impression that they’ve stumbled upon an after-hours lock-in and céilí. This energy is maintained throughout the production with each of the twelve cast members doubling as skilled musicians, playing a variety of instruments that range from banjo, accordion, fiddle, ukulele and mandolin. Throughout the performance characters not involved in the scene at hand sit around the semi-circle thrust stage as if observing the ‘once upon a time’ tale that is taking place.

Designed by Bob Crowley, the set is simple yet effective. Most of the story takes place in the setting of the pub which indicates that the pub offers a sense of community for the ordinary people of Dublin. During the narrative, the would-be couple find themselves a gang of underdogs from this community to help record their music. These include Billy the bassist, a proud northsider with a failing music shop, and Svec the drummer, a Czech wannabe northsider who earnestly watches Fair City in hope of learning Dublin-English and picking up life advice.

The set has a raised platform which in one scene acts as a cliff overlooking Dublin bay. Fibre optic lights on the stage floor work well to depict the sparkling lights of Dublin city as Girl finally speaks her heart. This climatic moment in the story has a cinematic quality to it as subtitles were projected on a screen above the actors heads, translating the Czech words spoken to the unknowing Dubliner: “I love you.”

A weakness of the production was in the opening scenes where the narrative could be accused of jumping ahead too quickly. After hearing one of Guy’s songs Girl immediately tells him “You should go and find the girl these songs are obviously about.” While this directness is in keeping with her character for the remainder of the musical, the audience hadn’t been given enough time to emotionally invest in the character or this obvious indication of what was to come. Also the romantic notion of ‘what might have been but never was’ isn’t as elegantly delivered in the stage adaption as it was in the film. Part of the film’s beauty lies in how understated the would-be couple’s love for each other is. This is lost in the stage adaption as Guy tells Girl “I wrote these songs at another time for another
girl but when I sing it’s for us, I think. It’s you I see in the songs.” The only weak aspect of the cast’s performance was leading man Declan Bennet’s faltering Dublin accent which was, at times, distractingly British.

Over all though, ONCE definitely does not disappoint and will have you laughing (and maybe even crying) through the two hour performance. Well worth a trip to the theatre.

ONCE has left Dublin to make its West End debut. If you find yourself in London, it’s definitely one to look out for!

Alyson Henry

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