Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Review: Once (The Musical) – Phoenix Theatre

After watching Spamalot and experiencing how musical theatre could take something I love and turn in it into a giant turd, it was with much trepidation that I was convinced into going to see a performance of Once. I am a fan of the 2006 film of the same name. Set in Dublin, the wonderfully understated film follows the developing friendship (and possible romance) of “Guy” an Irish busker and “Girl” an immigrant Czech girl as they bond over their shared love of music. The soundtrack of the film was mostly written by the two leads Glen Hansard (of the Frames) and Markéta Irglová. It also has one of the most cringing and realistic portrayals of a desperate man having his offer of sex rejected.

As for the musical, it's poster seemed to haunt my commute for the last year and it's very existence would anger me on a daily basis. I don't care if you want to make pull a musical out of the arse of a mediocre 1990s movie but when you try to do it with one of my favourite films its only going to make me angry. As you can probably tell I have a slightly over developed sense of cynicism. I can report, much to my surprise, that my cynical side seemed to take a night off and I genuinely enjoyed Once.

Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitešić (Girl)

The Good Bits
The production did a remarkably good job of drawing you in. As you walk into the theatre the cast are already on stage playing a Trad session as members of the audience buy drinks from the bar on stage (a nice touch). I am an unashamed fan of Irish music so I maybe it was this that began to sooth slowly silence my cynical self (especially when they did a good version of Raglan Road). The music throughout the production, whether it be original, traditional or drawn from the original Hansard/Irglová soundtrack was played wonderfully by a cast who really seemed to love what they were playing. How the music was used was also of note. Much like the film the music is largely diegetic1 and not a case of the performers knowingly singing the plot of the play. My friend and I overheard a conversation about whether this makes Once a musical in a traditional sense. I guess you could say it was more like watching a film about writing and performing music rather than a musical. The story loosely follows the plot of the film, though with a much expanded cast of characters, so there are no major plot surprises for those who know the film. It is also funny and I laughed more than I did during that alleged comedy “Spamalot”.

The Not So Good Bits
It's not perfect. There is some occasional ropey acting, my Irish friends may side-eye some of the accents and I didn't see the need for some of the pointless dance routines during the songs. It certainly lacks the subtlety of the original material and there is some scenery chewing (especially from a certain music shop owner). There was only one thing that did genuinely annoy me. I don't want to give much away but people who know the film will know what I mean when I say this: there is a line in Czech in the film, also in the musical, that does not need to be subtitled but, for the musical, it was.  I guess this comes to the core of the differences between the film and the play, so much of the film's drama comes more from what is not said whilst the musical, perhaps out of necessity, often shouts out what the characters are saying.

Some Final Thoughts
These problems were quite easy to overlook. Perhaps contradictorily, those who love the film will like the musical but they can also expect a very different experience and tone. My co-theatre goer has not seen the original (much to his shame) and enjoyed it just as much as I did, thou I would recommend making an effort to see the original film before you go to the musical. In short, despite it's flaws, Once (the Musical) makes for a pleasant night out especially for those, who like me, wish to purge the memory of previous bad experience in the theatre.
Please Comment or tweet your thoughts (@blakeleynixon)

1Diegetic –when a song occurs literally in the plot. In films, think of music played on a radio in the scene (diegetic) compared with the musical score (non diegetic).

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