Once – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Book: Enda Walsh

Music & Lyrics: Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová

Director: Peter Rowe

An Irish busker and songwriter – known only as Guy – is done with music. His ex-girlfriend and inspiration for his songs is in New York their relationship having ended some six months earlier. The only future he can see is working as a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father’s shop. He plays one last song and walks away, leaving his guitar on the pavement. A passing Czech girl – known only as Girl – hears him and there’s an immediate connection – not least because she has a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck and is also a musician. Over a few days, her quirky influence turns him around and Guy is all set to go to New York to try his luck, ostensibly with his ex as well as record companies. But there’s a definite spark between Guy and Girl, who, it turns out, has a little girl and absentee husband. Is there a future for them – in music or in love?

Once is based on the 2007 film of the same name, in which Guy and Girl were played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who also provided most of the original songs, one of which, Falling Slowly, won that year’s Oscar for Best Original Song. The stage adaptation premiered in 2011 and its Broadway production won many awards, and now tours the UK.

With music at its heart and performed by a large cast of actor-musicians, it’s fair to say that Once is most comfortable in its own skin when music is playing –  and it is the quality of the music and its performance that sets it aside from many other musicals. The music and lyrics speak to us and tell the story of Guy’s love for and pain over his ex. The song that draws Girl to him, Leave, is almost too painful to listen to, feeling at times like a visceral scream. It contrasts with the gentle Falling Slowly and the moving If You Want Me. Other high spots include The Moon, with pure, clean vocals from James William-Pattison, while the a capella reprise of Gold towards the end is a thing of rare beauty. The use of the cast as musicians allows the music to take on a life and personality of its own, swelling and driving the emotions, wrapping one in a warm cocoon. That’s assisted by the direction of Peter Rowe and the staging, that finds most of the cast onstage all of the time, their attention on the action when not involved, drawing the audience in. The flow is assured by the use of simple props that can be wheeled in and out and striking lighting used to isolate scenes and characters – the moment when that spark appears ready to ignite, as Guy sings Gold at the close of the first act, is an especially fine example.

However, the book isn’t quite of the same calibre. Some characters are somewhat caricatured, for example, Billy, the left-wing music shop owner who allows Girl to play his pianos, and some of the twists and turns of the plot appear to come from nowhere and, sometimes, go nowhere either.

Our central duo, Daniel Healy (Guy) and Emma Lucia (Girl), are totally believable in their roles as their rather sweet romance blossoms. The turnaround of Guy’s mood under Girl’s unpredictable, kooky influence is well drawn and one finds oneself rooting for them as they find a way forward. Samuel Martin gives a memorable comic performance as wannabe musician bank manager, and the members of the ensemble all provide sound support to the story and its moods.

Big-hearted and warm, Once is a rather beautiful piece and certainly worth watching for its heart and music alone.

Runs until 14 March 2020

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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