A pre-show céilí is not something you generally expect to find when you enter a West End theatre, but this foot stomping, rousing musical tradition runs through the very heart of Once, a bittersweet show of beautifully simple proportions.
Set in a Dublin struggling with recession blues, Enda Walsh’s passionate adaptation of the little-known Irish film of the same name follows an ephemeral romance, founded in a mutual love of music, over the course of five life-changing days.
Known simple as Girl and Guy, she is an unflinchingly honest, single mother from the Czech Republic, he a busker and Hoover-repair man born and bred in Dublin who is about to close his guitar case for good before she unexpectedly walks into his life.
In clichéd optimistic terms, if her cup is seemingly overflowing with joie de vivre, his is nursing the dregs of a now warm Guinness (or Murphy’s according to the show’s sponsors); her quirky, fearless energy, which sees her turn his life around and always whisper hello to her piano, capturing the stage and inevitably his broken heart.
If musicals are labelled – arguably unfairly – as brash and colourful, this is another beast entirely. Gentle and soft, it is a musical as seen through a sepia lens, a musical where the acting is engrossingly naturalistic and the choreography theatrically stylistic making the experience more music video than musical theatre.
Declan Bennett’s Guy has the same haunting, soft, lilting voice as Damian Rice, finding the eloquence he lacks in speech through the security of his acoustic guitar and heartbroken ballads, which receive rousing backing from the ever-present cast who join in with steel-stringed guitars, accordions and violins, the equally talented Zrinka Cvitešić’s Girl providing piano accompaniment.
Mixing Irish folk music, traditional Czech songs and Guy’s romantic offerings, it’s as eclectic a musical as Girl is eccentric. The effect is passionate, stirring music and voices of the kind you’d like to imagine stumbling upon in an Irish pub, as the company enter into Run DMC-style dance offs, facing off with strings and drums rather than rap and replacing break dance with stomping feet.
Performed in its entirety on one set – a pub surrounded by antique mirrors that cast soft, painting-like reflections of the characters across the walls – director John Tiffany draws the audience in with the intimate staging, while Cvitešić and Bennett’s entrance with explosive chemistry.
The leading pair undoubtedly impress with their subtle, loving performances, but Once is truly an ensemble piece with the company comprising all the components needed to create a memorable, if unconventional, band. While Bennett is the perfect indie frontman, with his lumberjack shirt, slim fitting jeans and facial hair, he is joined by an aging Motorhead-wearing muso on guitar, the short-skirt wearing flirtatious Reza on strings, a respectable bank manager by day, musician by night on cello and a drummer who has that obligatory crazy glint in his eye.
Arguably the most romantic show in the West End since Brief Encounter, this is a musical for anyone who spent their youth learning chords or dreamt of standing up at an open-mic night, for anyone looking to combine the electricity of a live gig with the magic of theatre, something this show has in spades.