Anyone suffering under the illusion that West End musicals are all flashy costumes and over-the-top staging should head without delay to a performance of Once at the Phoenix Theatre. Based on the 2007 film by John Carney, Once is a shot in the arm of unpretentious live music and honest storytelling that wholly deserves the commercial and critical success it has received on Broadway and now in the West End.
From the beginning, it is clear that Once is a unique show. The set, a facsimile of a typical Dublin pub, serves as a real bar for theatre-goers before the performance and during intermission. The actors, all of whom play their own instruments, perform toe-tapping folk songs for the audience in the lead up to the show’s opening number, conjuring a casual, convivial atmosphere that sets the tone for the rest of the play.
The performance opens with the unnamed lead ‘Guy’, a gifted but disillusioned singer-songwriter, crossing paths with ‘Girl’, a Czech immigrant who comes to believe in Guy’s talent and, with great wit, charm and perseverance, manages to reignite Guy’s passion for music and put him on a path to stardom. While the main plot is relatively simple – a moving tale of bittersweet love between the two leads – the play’s uncluttered staging, straightforward script and restrained use of music allows for an effortless exploration of a myriad complex themes and emotions. Once touches poignantly on ambition, fear of failure, the immigrant experience, unrequited love, friendship, marriage, parenthood and grief, without ever feeling overburdened or unnatural.
The story is complimented by a hearty dose of good humour, beautiful songs – the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly is a highlight, as is the haunting a capella reprisal of Gold in the second act – and, of course, the foot-stomping folk music that sets Once apart from the stereotype of the bombastic West End musical.
Once is currently taking bookings until July 2015. Catch Arthur Darvill and Zrinka Cvitešić, the worthy winner of the 2014 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her work in Once, in the roles of ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ until 10 May 2014.