Music & Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Book by Enda Walsh
Based on the motion picture written & directed by John Carney
Directed by John Tiffany
Declan Bennett as The Guy
Zrinka Cvitesie as The Girl
Phoenix Theatre, London
30th March 2013
The first incarnation of Once was the 2006 film, and that starred Glen Hansard as the busker: the real-life performer and writer of the songs, and he meets Marketa Irglova, playing herself as a Czech singer-songwriter domiciled in Ireland. And they were in a real-life relationship. The story is about a busker, about to chuck in all attempts at singing, until he meets a Czech girl who persuades him to record his songs, accompanied by herself on piano and backing vocal. They get a bank loan, get up a band of musicians and record in a proper studio. A slight story. But they are falling in love. He has a girlfriend in America; she has a daughter in Dublin and a husband back in the Czech Republic.
They won the best original song Oscar in 2008 for ’Falling Slowly’ from Once, a song just coming up to four million YouTube hits.
They did it on Broadway. Once picked up 8 Tony Awards in 2012, and the 2013 Grammy for best musical theatre album. It comes to London after acclamation on Broadway and in Dublin.
First advice: get there and seated at least twenty minutes early. The stage is semi-circular, as an Irish pub. You can walk on stage and buy drinks, but more to the point the twenty minute pre-show with Irish and Czech songs from the ensemble is all wonderful stuff, culminating in a sublime version of Raglan Road, vocal and mandolin, by Michael O’Connor who plays The Guy’s dad. He did it so well that going home we flicked to Van Morrison & The Chieftains on the in-car iPod, and it seemed overblown in comparison to the stage version we’d heard.
The stage musical is by no means a walk-through of the film. It has been rethought for the theatre, retaining the poignancy of the central romance, but surrounded by greater theatricality. Director John Tiffany says:
What (Enda Walsh) did was take those characters who were only really glimpsed in the film … the piano shop owner, the bank manager, the other musicians, her Czech flatmates … and he fleshed them out beautifully and hilariously in a very Enda style.
The Czech flatmates become tightly integrated into the story and add a lot of humor. Andre is the ambitious burger bar manager, and Svec is the one who wants to sound Irish. They are also the ones recruited to be bass guitarist and drummer in the studio, along with Billy, the music store owner, on guitar, and the bank manager on cello. That’s efficient, but it also integrates the story better than having a fresh set of musicians.
The set has a huge mirror back centre, and many mirrors on the walls. The big mirror gives it all a hologram effect … you can see the principals from both sides. Afterwards we said, ‘How did they cast this? “Let’s look at the adverts in The Stage (fictional!):
WANTED: Late middle aged-actress who can do a Czech accent, sing lead in Czech, play accordion and concertina, dance, and act.
ALSO WANTED: Sexy-looking actress of the first quality (RSC standard). Must be tall, very attractive. Able to do a Czech accent, sing lead, dance and play violin at professional level.
ALSO WANTED: Actor who can play a bank manager from Cork, sing solo and ensemble, and play guitar. Must also be able to play cello. And play cello while going through carefully choreographed dance routines. Must have first rate comic acting ability.
They did well. They got Valda Aviks for the first, Flora Spencer-Longhurst for the second and Jez Unwin for the third. OK, that was three. The casting director has to do that for a dozen roles, and include abilities on guitar, bass guitar, cello, drums, piano, banjo, ukulele, mandolins (two), violins (two). The ensemble work is astonishing. There are a dozen or more musicians on the stage. All of them have to act. All have to move and dance in a choreographed way while playing instruments and singing.
Instrumental interlude between scenes
There are superb devices. When people are supposed to be speaking in Czech, they actually speak in English, but Czech appears on a screen at the back. This is used to comic effect, but also to deepen the love story when it’s reversed and the girl really speaks in Czech. Guy asks what she means and gets a innocuous answer in English. But then the true translation is shown on the screen behind. Brilliant and consistent.
Also, when they listen to recordings, of music and voice, these are played / spoken live by the musicians seated in semi-darkness around the stage. The perpetual musical issue where someone starts strumming solo guitar in character and is then joined by invisible drums and string section is eradicated too. You can see the musicians standing and joining in overtly.
They run comedy and sentiment perfectly together. Music shop owner Billy (in Motorhead T-shirt) is hilarious, but I defy any male not to fall in love with The Girl as played by Zrinka Cvitesie. The beauty of the love story is that in this age of TV bonkfests (Game of Thrones and the Misfits spring to mind) this is a genuinely moving love story in which they never kiss, never make love. They make music. That was true of the marvellous and understated film. It’s genius writing and direction to transfer it to the stage, make it big enough for live theatre, but retain the intimacy and poignancy of the film. An interesting contrast is the sexy flatmate, Reza, with the (unnamed) The Girl, who exudes emotion, but is so different.
The studio band: Andre, Svec, The Guy, Billy, the bank manager, The Girl
Musically it’s hard to do. In the second Act, the musicians, new to the recording studio, gradually join in the song, as the engineer’s face gradually goes from disdain to wonder. That means they really have to be very good to carry it off.
Result? As it moved to a conclusion, you felt a deep pang, having seen the film, that it was nearly over. It felt far too short. Not that it was short, but you wanted more. It got an unequivocal full standing ovation. It stands with Quatermaine’s Terms and The Book of Mormon this year. Whatever the grading system is, five stars, ten out of ten, it’s right at the top of it.
£6. Over the top in price, but a souvenir, and with a show this good, who cares? I bought the CD at £16 as well, only sorry that it was the Broadway CD. I wanted THIS production CD.
THE PHOENIX THEATRE
The Phoenix is appropriately located in Charing Cross Road right among the guitar shops. The interior is beautiful, and the seats were decently spaced and a central aisle is always good. On the downside, the toilets were atrocious, which is standard for London Theatreland. The bar on stage gave atmosphere, but two rows in front of us a group of four people all bought pints, and then all got up one by one during the performance to go for a pee, making the rest of the row stand too. You should kind of know if you can take half a play without a pee and selling pints of beer to take to the seats exacerbates it. They got back in. At some of the shows in the area, they wouldn’t have got back to their seats but would have had to stand. You have to be more liberal if you provide the beer, I guess.
‘Nice guitar.’ ‘Yes, it’s a Martin.’ That’s in the bank manager scene, then he shows that he has a Martin too, saying it cost a fortune but is worth it.
Programme note: “Guitars supplied by Martin Guitars.”
But a nice touch was getting The Guy’s black Martin to look badly worn from the plectrum.