Once has been playing at the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road since March 2013. Book by Enda Walsh, music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, directed by John Tiffany.
I should start with this with a disclaimer: the movie Once is my favourite movie in the world. I must have seen it at least twenty times since it first came out in 2006, and I love it to bits. I love that it’s a small story – a fragile story, an ephemeral one, a platonic romance that does not end but is perhaps unfinished. I love that it doesn’t try to be about everything but is just about one thing: these five days in the lives of these two people.
And so I was apprehensive about seeing the musical, and I seriously questioned whether or not I wanted to do it. The musical, as a genre, is not suited to the small story. Everything about musicals is big and exaggerated and stylised, and so I was really, really worried that seeing it on stage might ruin the movie for me.
I needn’t have worried. This is probably the best musical I have ever seen in my life.
It reminded me not so much of the traditional musical but of Midsummer (a play with songs), which toured Australia from Glasgow last year and was probably one of my favourite shows of 2012. Once, translated to the stage by playwright Enda Walsh (who wrote The New Electric Ballroom, also seen on Sydney stages last year), is not so much a musical but a play with songs. I wrote in my review of Viva Forever that there’s an argument to be made linking the structures of the musical and pornography, songs functioning as climaxes, linked together by a veneer of plot. That doesn’t happen in Once. Instead, the songs arise very naturally out of the plot. The focus is not on the music but on how the two lead characters, the Guy (Declan Bennett) and the Girl (Zrinka Cvitešić) are changed by their music, how they fall in love through music. Music is a thread that runs through the show rather than being the reason the show exists. Both writer Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany write in the program about the need to find a new theatrical language to translate Once from screen to stage, and they certainly succeed. This show is just gorgeous.
It’s not exactly like the movie. It’s lost some of that sense of ephemerality, of fragility. It’s more robust: there’s less sense that either the Guy or the Girl could disappear out of the others’ life with no warning at all. The Girl is far more aggressive figure than she was in the film – she drives the action much more than any other character. But these are not necessarily bad changes – they are, as Walsh and Tiffany wrote, translations. The subtleties of the film would not translate on the West End stage. Walsh and Tiffany have found a way around this that doesn’t involve massive dance numbers and glitter cannons. (There is a little bit of dancing. It’s probably the weakest thing in the whole show. It doesn’t need it. It stands alone.) There is also a little more focus on some of the surrounding characters. This didn’t necessarily work for me all the time – particularly at the beginning of the second act, when there seemed to be a lot of messing around with the secondary characters before the focus was shifted back to the Guy and the Girl – but I understand why they did it.
One thing that particularly appeals to me about Once is actually a really nerdy literary criticism thing. A major plot point revolves around the Guy’s music: he’s written all these songs for another girl, but they take on new meanings when he meets the Girl. He actually explicitly tells her that the meaning for him is different now, because he’s singing them for her. I love this idea of the flexibility of text: meaning isn’t fixed or rigid, but adapts and shifts, even for the same reader. (I might have just been talking about this a lot at a conference I was at the week before, so it was on my mind – it was kind of gratifying to see it endorsed on stage.) Once is kind of the perfect text to explore this with, because it’s so ambiguous. Do they end up together? Is their love romantic or platonic? Is it a love story that ends sadly or is just unfinished? Will they ever meet again? The text doesn’t tell you. You get to decide. For everyone, Once is a little bit different, and in every viewing, it’s a little bit different again. The theatre, that most transient of art forms, becomes the perfect venue for Once.
Not all the songs from the film make it to the musical. I was sad not to hear Lies and Fallen From The Sky, but I also wouldn’t have wanted them to shoehorn them in when there wasn’t room for them. There’s also a couple of new songs that are just gorgeous (especially Sleeping) and amazing interpretations of older songs: the a capella version of Gold is just astoundingly beautiful. I was a little worried that the music wouldn’t seem the same without Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, but the cast is phenomenal. Bennett and Cvitešić have amazing chemistry. They have a moment at the end of the Act One which is just spine-tinglingly good. The Guy has just sung Gold at an open mic night, and he looks across at the Girl, and the lights are just on them for a moment before they go down for interval, and... wow. Chills. CHILLS.
I could rave about how much I loved this show for a long time more, but it might get embarrassingly gush-y, so I’ll stop here. If you are in London, go and see this show. Just go. It is charming and funny and tragic and romantic and just incredibly, incredibly lovely.
And also it has an on stage bar. I don’t know what more you could ask for.