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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Phoenix


  Ph: Manuel Harlan

At first glance this musical avoids all the trappings of the traditional West End and Broadway show. There are no chorus lines, the lighting is subdued, and the pub set (designed by Bob Crowley) could be the interior of countless Dublin boozers – the committed drinker's home away from home. Or, just home. The 12-strong cast of actor/musicians is apparently even dressed in clothes bought from charity shops. It's not how you look that matters, suggests John Tiffiny's multi Tony-winning production; it's how feel (on the word "feel," please thump your chest with your fist for the required emphasis) in your heart. All of which would be a lot easier to buy if the two main protagonists of this tender all-conquering musical weren't so damned pretty.

For all its reputation as a show that breaks down theatrical conventions – before the show starts you can join the cast on stage for a jamming session and buy a drink or three from the onstage bar – this is basically a deeply conventional handsome Guy (Decland Bennett) meets beautiful Girl (Zrinka Civitesie) love story. Not that I have a problem with that. I just don't think the show's reputation as a groundbreaking, revolutionary trailblazer is justified. In recent times the sole owner of that Tony award – if it existed, and perhaps it should – is still Spring Awakening, the songs for which were rooted in character rather than plot.

The sometimes devastatingly beautiful score in Once, composed by Glen Hansard, of the indie band Frames, and Marketa Irglová, is more your run-of-the-mill back catalogue show. Neither driven by character nor plot, the music is plundered from Guy's stock of songs written before his girlfriend left him to go to New York. The musical treasure trove is resurrected by the piano-playing Czech immigrant Girl who makes it her mission to get Guy's music the recognition it deserves.

Giving the normally noirish playwright Enda Walsh the job of revamping the romance for the stage pays off handsomely. The dialogue is shot through with Dublin banter and wit, even that spoken by Girl's fellow Czech immigrants.

But let's not get carried away. What we have here is a series of terrifically performed great songs, including the Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" and the superb opening number "Leave," in which Bennett's guitar man Guy starts out hurt and ends up enraged by his girlfriend walking out. And the method by which Tiffiny attaches the songs to the love story is certainly sophisticated. Steven Hoggett's choreography is as emotionally expressive as the best of the music and words here.

But narratively, structurally and musically this show does not push any boundaries. Rather, Once does some basic things very well. The cast is hugely talented, the songs are deeply moving, the love story – though thinly drawn – is wittily told. This is a good old-fashioned Broadway and West End musical if ever there was one.


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