Review: Once (Phoenix Theatre, London)

Once is proving to be a bit of Marmite show. One contingency leave Phoenix Theatre feeling like they’ve been short-changed or not quite sure what to make of it; while the other is blown away by the subtlety and powerful, understated moments throughout. As a long time fan of the film on which it was based, it’s safe to say I fall into the latter group.

One of the main things to bear in mind with Once is that, arguably, this is a play with music rather than a straightforward musical. There’s no orchestra (the music is played by the incredibly talented actors on stage) and, compared to much of the competition in London at the minute, there are relatively few songs at all.

Based on the film staring the then-real life couple Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Once is based in Dublin and centres on Guy and Girl. The Girl needs her hoover fixed. The Guy needs help getting back on the straight and narrow after his previous relationship. Thrown together in these unconventional circumstances, she helps him get his songs recorded.

They fall in love. But it’s not that simple this time.

Considering the current cast of Once have been in the show for the best part of a year, the performances on the night I saw them felt incredibly fresh. Both the leads and the ensemble add an energy to the show that adds to the strength of the story and power of the songs.

Special mention has to go to Zrinka Cvitesic, though. By the end of the performance I was all but ready to turn straight and do some serious Twitter stalking. Cvitesic brings a subtlety to the role of Girl that’s incredibly charming – she has a way of pulling attention to her whenever she’s on stage. And her voice treads carefully between a softness that’s perfect for the reflective ‘The Hill’, and a powerful belt that takes the second half of the ensemble piece ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ to a new level.

Opposite Cvitesic on the night was Declan Bennett, who is perfect as the brooding Guy. His voice is more than up for the more strained numbers – perfect for conveying the desperation needed in ‘Say It To Me Now’  – while his good looks and faux Irish accent make it hard not to see why the Girl falls for him.

The music throughout is a mixture of the original film’s soundtrack, as penned by Irish musician Glen Hansard, and new songs created for original Broadway version of the show. A beautiful mix of soft ballads (such as ‘The Hill’ and ‘Falling Slowly’) and uplifting ensemble numbers (see ‘Gold’ and ‘The North Strand’) that draw on the Irish heritage, the music is at the heart the story.

But the beauty of the music is not in the perfect balance of strings, guitar and piano (listen to ‘It Cannot Be About That’ for a stunning example of this at work!), but in the lyrics. There’s a real poignancy about them and a genuineness that you just don’t get in a lot of the west end.

The strength of the lyrics is never more evident than in the A Cappella version of Gold. I can honestly say I have never heard a theatre so quiet as the moment where the entire cast stood and sang in unison, telling the story through song, without faintest hint of an instrument.

While throughout the show, we remain within the confines of a single bar set, the action does move between a number of locations – the Girl’s apartment, a banker’s office, the recording studio, a hilltop looking over Dublin. Through the use of lighting and minimal props, each location is created to great effect.

It’s a testament to Bob Crowley’s design that the bar feels rich and worn enough to be a real-life location, but still fade into the background as needed. The Dublin hilltop, for example, sees the Guy and Girl stand on the back wall of the bar, while the room is filled with small lights representing the city below. It may not sound showy, but it’s all that’s needed to support the sentimental moment between the two leads.

Verdict: ★★★★☆

A lovely translation of the film that has been well adapted to this new format. The cast were perfect, and the power of the music has never been stronger.

And the seat…

Stalls, row F, seat 2. My first time in Phoenix Theatre, I have to say I was surprised at how nice (and well-sized) it is. At the reduced price of £32.50, the seat is designated as restricted view because it sits outside of the proscenium. I have to say though that, at more than half the price of the seat next to me, I’d take this one every time.

For purists, you cannot see the set at stage left, but because this doesn’t change throughout the show, it’s not really a great annoyance. And in terms of the action, you miss only a small amount in act two (but really not enough to warrant paying double the price).

The other great thing about sitting in the stalls for Once is the pre-show. With a bar on stage, audience members are able to go and buy a drink and loiter while the actors appear for an ‘impromptu’ jamming session.

Phoenix Theatre Seat F2
Phoenix Theatre Seat F2
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