With eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, four Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical, a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album and an Academy Award for Best Original Song, Once has impressive credentials.
As I entered the Princess Theatre on opening night, I was greeted with a pint of Guinness and a cast that were already in full swing on stage, jamming around a working bar – a bar that was made available to the audience for a pre-show refreshment. Nice touch. With walls broken down early, it was easy to warm to this ensemble.
The show began somewhat unexpectedly. The absence of an overture or dimming of house lights made for an unconventional start. Though theatre patrons had filed off the stage with their beers in hand, the house continued to chatter until eventually the realisation that the show had “officially” begun swept through the auditorium.
Judging by the unusually loud wave of raucous, pub-like applause after the first couple of numbers, which weren’t exactly show-stoppers, I got the impression that Once was a show that many audience members had already experienced elsewhere. People were jumping out of their skin early, I assumed for a good reason, and I was desperate to find out why. I felt like I was looking at one of those seeing-eye pictures and everyone else could see the elephant, but me.
The story follows the struggle of Guy, played by the very talented Tom Parsons, as he battles through a fairly humdrum life living with his father and fixing vacuum cleaners, all the while pining for his ex-girlfriend like a melancholic teenager. To deal with the heartache, he pens a mixed bag of epic Goo Goo Doll-esque break up songs that, while all appealing in their own way, are limited in range. Though they’re performed with unwavering sincerity and commitment (in fact, the way in which Guy belts his acoustic guitar within an inch of its life made me wonder if he was going to reach for a razor blade), his numbers soon became a little same/same. This is not the fault of Parsons’ interpretation by any means, but rather his one-dimensional songs. Parsons’ voice is very impressive – most notably his top range, and he works hard to achieve light and shade throughout.
While the show is interspersed with occasional, yet very welcome, comic musical interludes from the talented ensemble, the bulk of the score is dedicated to the lament of Guy. This continues as he meets Girl, played by Madeline Jones, and she joins the chorus of melancholy as his muse. The pair then embark on an unconventional love story, which smacks of reality and originality.
The chemistry between Guy and Girl is essential to the drama and Parsons and Jones achieve this connection without question. Their voices blend beautifully and both, Jones in particular, demonstrate an impressive command of both comic and dramatic stagecraft.
Guy and Girl’s relationship develops through music, however doesn’t advance any further than a few stolen glances. Lamentation continues on both sides over love lost (again). If the story seems a little repetitive (boy loses girl, boy finds new love is right under his nose, boy loses girl etc), it is. It’s this refreshingly new take on the typical happy ending that is perhaps the show’s greatest strength and it’s Achilles heel at the same time.
The cast are a multi-talented bunch of Irish folk who skillfully balance acting, dancing and singing whilst playing a plethora of instruments – from cello to melodica and everything in between. While some of the characters may come off as a little cliché – there’s the dorky banker, the quirky fat guy, the eccentric mother, the script, which is consistently hilarious throughout, carries this piece, providing much needed light-hearted moments at just the right times.
The entire ensemble is pleasure to watch. There are no big names here to overshadow the action, just pure talent and it’s apparent that they absolutely love being in this production. The entire cast is on stage for the majority of the show, with their instruments at the ready, awaiting their opportunity to join the chorus. The cast treat the score with the respect and tenderness it deserves, creating several musical moments that are absolutely astounding. I would quote those numbers specifically, but alas, the PR company failed to provide me with a programme.
Direction was, for the most part, effective, however some cliché moments were disappointing. Girl helping Guy to do up his jacket and scooping her head up afterward so that they almost kissed was a little obvious, even from the back row behind a column (thanks again PR company). Asking Susan-Anne Walker to clamber over four tables in heels for no good reason and the incorporation of contemporary dance was out of place. That said, these moments were few.
Once knows exactly what kind of show it is and it never tries to be anything else. There are no barricades here, no hydraulics, no gorillas, just simple staging for a simple story. It’s reflective and embodies something that no other musical has been able to achieve – a celebration of the beauty within an anti-climatic relationship. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s the imperfections that make it truly perfect. I never really understood the Irish until I went to Ireland and you’ll never really understand Once until you experience it for yourself.