For those who fell in love with the 2006 very low budget film, the arrival of the musical version of Once was a worrying moment. The fact that it had come via Broadway added to the concerns; would it have become a cheesy, overdone, toned-down version without any bite?
When we arrived for the press night at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre, we were greeted by the sight of audience members wandering freely around the stage and being served drinks from a makeshift bar. Was this something to do with it being press night, we wondered? A special behind-the-scenes look at the props and staging? Cast members assembled casually on stage – mostly distinguishable in varying ways by their dress – to engage in a toe-tapping busk that was undeniably of the traditional Irish rhythmic ceilidh genre, found in pubs across the land and Irish pubs across the world. It was at that point that my companion whispered with concern, “uh-oh, I hope we’re not about to be treated to a load of stage-Irish…” and as a Dublin girl myself I couldn’t help but agree. Thankfully, Once avoids anything so crass and if anything concentrate more on the Czech characters and traditions when it strays into ‘ethnic’ territory.
However, I have to admit, love stories don’t do it for me. My friends will tell you that a ‘rom-com’ is generally the last type of film I would ever choose to watch. I’ve never sat through a traditional love story – from Shakespeare to Richard Curtis – without generally experiencing a rising sense of irritation and a strong desire to cry out “oh, get OVER yourselves!”. (Before you decide I’m a cold, hard cynic, I should probably let you know that I do actually love flowers, babies, animals and am not averse to pastel colours. But yes, my perfect date is probably paintballing rather than dinner, guys.) So it says much for Once that I enjoyed it anyway, as it is undoubtedly a romantic love story in a fairly pure form – boy meets girl, they both got issues, bit of ecstasy, bit of despair … well, I won’t give away the ending. I think it was the accomplished emotional performance of the cast that really won me over; it was impossible not to get drawn into their story, most particularly through the charming and utterly real performance of the lead female Zrinka Cvitešić.
One of the most impressive aspects of Once is the musicianship of the cast. They are all quite clearly accomplished musicians in their own right, with most of them playing several different instruments during the performance. They perform the incredibly difficult feat of not only singing and playing at the same time, but also acting and occasionally dancing as well. It was the powerfully but simply choreographed numbers that remained with me after the show; that and the bewitching a cappella ‘Gold’, sung by male members of the cast in pitch-perfect close harmony that had my mouth falling open in wonder. For one dreadful moment close to the end I thought we were in for a hideously twee ending after all, but fortunately it is much more satisfactory than that. Once should please both those familiar with the film and those new to the story.