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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Phoenix


  Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

At an out-of-town preview of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! the great American showman Mike Todd famously remarked, “No gags, no girls, no chance.” I wonder what he would have made of Once, the new musical based on a low-budget movie of 2006. It, too, has no gags, no girls (well, no chorus girls), no sex, no orchestra, no choreography to speak of and a clutch of Irish ballads that all sounded pretty similar to me. It could not be further in tone or appearance from your quintessential Broadway musical such as The Lion King, The Producers, Hairspray or the in-your-face Book of Mormon.

Yet it won eight Tony awards last year. In complete contrast to the above shows, what seems to appeal to its many admirers is the folksy simplicity of its concept, the fragility of its plot and a score as far away from the sound of Times Square as its possible to get. I have to be up front here. This is not the kind of music I respond to, and, courtesy of composers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, there’s a great deal of it on offer.

It all takes place in a Dublin bar where members of the audience are invited to enjoy a pre-show drink with the cast. Another musical-comedy first. The two leading characters are simply called Guy and Girl. He (Declan Bennett) is a broody busker who, when he isn’t writing songs, works in his father’s shop mending vacuum cleaners.

She (Zrinka Cvitesic) is a Czech immigrant who, after hearing one of Guy’s songs, offers to play the piano for him if he agrees to repair her faulty Hoover. Within a period of five days Girl has managed to persuade Guy that he really has talent and should cut a demo album of his songs. A loan is duly arranged with a local bank manager who happens to be a musician himself, and with the participation of the local community, a CD is cut.

Needless to say, Guy and Girl fall in love, but there are problems. He has a girlfriend who has emigrated to New York; she is married (but separated) and has a young daughter. There is no “hanky panky” (to use her phrase) between them, and the show ends on a wistful note with Guy leaving Dublin for New York to try his luck with his demo disc and to resuscitate his relationship with his girlfriend. People all around me, it has to be said, had tears in their eyes.

Everything about Once is low key, which of course may be its strength. With the exception of the two leading players – who, in a low-key kind of way are quite appealing, the rest of the cast members, all of whom play musical instruments, seem to have been chosen for their musical rather than acting abilities.

Bob Crowley’s all-purpose barroom set, dominated by mirrors placed at various angles, stands in for a multitude of different locations, while John Tiffany’s low-key direction isn’t shy of taking its time to move along the simple narrative that playwright Enda Walsh has tweaked and re-worked from John Carney’s original screenplay. 

I’ve now seen Once and once is enough. This, I confidently declare, will never be one of my desert-island musicals.


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