Friday, 19 July 2013

ONCE THE MUSICAL - Theatre Review


Performance Run: Continuing
Performance Reviewed: Thursday 18 July 2013

Reviewed by Kyle Pedley

Having only been reviewing professionally for the past year or so, and doing so with both touring and West End productions, it has meant playing quite the game of catch up. Luckily though it has also meant being able to experience a real wealth and variety of some of the big, musical heavyhitters such as Les Miserables, Cats, Blood Brothers, The Lion King, Spamalot, Avenue Q etc. as well as newer favourites and recent success stories including the likes of The Book of Mormon, Matilda the Musical, Ghost the Musical, American Idiot and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Considerate it high, and relatively experienced, praise then, to preface this review by saying that Once the Musical is not only one of the most original, unique and utterly irrepressible shows I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, but also a very strong contender for the best show you can experience in London, or indeed anywhere in the UK, right now.

Based on the 2006 movie of the same name, on paper Once seems an unlikely candidate to get the musical theatre treatment - a tender, honest and fairly low-key tale of two disenfranchised young people coming together and bonding over their love of making music and having experienced similar romantic woes. Thankfully, the intrinsic purity of the original films formula is beautifully replicated on stage, and the creative team have found a fairly minimalistic yet continually effective means of harmonising dance, live music (no trace of a pit orchestra here) and blisteringly naturalistic performances to create something of a musical sub-genre all of their own. This is a production with almost staggering self-confidence in its own identity and artistic intent, completely unshackled from musical and theatrical convention, and a theatre-going experience that has quite deservedly reaped plaudits of being revolutionary in its approach.

Delicate yet resonant, we follow the tale of our unnamed protagonist (simply referred to as ‘Guy’ in the programme), a down-on-his-luck hoover repair man with genuine talent as a singer-songwriter but who has hit the doldrums after a recent relationship breakdown. Into his life stumbles ‘Girl’, an optimistic yet frank (she’s Czech!) force of nature who re-ignites his hopes and dreams both professional and romantic. It may sound a little de facto, but in truth this is one of the most tenderly observed tales of attraction and love you can have the pleasure of experiencing - particularly for theatre it is a remarkably restrained and understated love story that sheds cliche and defies brash expectations to craft something much more affecting and moving as a result. To spoil the outcome would be to rob Once of its almost frustratingly brilliant allure, but needless to say every moment of locked eyes or fleeting touch of hands is as powerful as any Lloyd-Webber, Schönberg or Sondheim ballad.

Enormous credit must go to the shows two captivating leads, who both take superbly realised and distinctive characters and flesh them out with sincere, wonderfully nuanced performances. There are no broad strokes of theatrical archetypes here; these are two wholly unique and thoroughly believable protagonists around which the entire show revolves, and the quality and maturity of Enda Walsh’s sublime book is more than met by the productions’ two central stars. Declan Bennett takes the disenfranchised ‘Guy’ and makes him a wholly empathetic and likeable figure, a somewhat lonely, defeated shell initially who visibly comes to life and awakens as his music is gradually given a platform and audience. Like much of the show, it’s a beautifully measured turn, and Bennett is wholly convincing as the down-on-his-luck grafter with a somewhat nervy, reluctant edge to his performance met with stunning, rich vocals that keep the character and his music sounding somehow both contemporary and timeless.

Zrinka Cvitešić (who I unknowingly reviewed on her birthday) is quite simply a revelation as 'Girl', and gives one of the most honest, sincere and truthful performances I can recall watching on stage. Her musical moments are generally more subdued and vocally far less showy than 'Guy's', but overall she is so beguiling in her earnestness and authenticity, and gives a performance altogether so wholly absorbing that it would be criminal for her to not be clutching an Olivier come 2014. But awards aside, should you opt to go see Once I wholeheartedly recommend getting seats as close to the stage as possible, for whilst the show naturally accommodates all views, being just 4 rows back as I was, you are really able to appreciate and be overwhelmed by the subtlety and tender brilliance of Cvitešić's beautiful turn in particular.

The supporting cast acquit themselves well, and there’s not only a rich, Irish flavour stamped throughout, but also a multicultural sense of community and fellowship that permeates through not just the secondary characters themselves but also the interactive staging and set design, ensemble choreography and the overall implementation of live instrumentation and support. It’s a touch that continues through to the structuring of the show itself - before Once begins proper the cast are on stage performing live numbers and encouraging audience participation up on the boards with them, and in the interval the set becomes an active bar, supplying beer and wine for those who also want to take the trip up on stage. Everything feels communal, supportive, involved; this is a company and show that exudes a sense of familiarity and warmth. Ryan Fletcher, Jos Slovick and Jez Unwin have fun as Guy’s diverse, ragtag support band, Tim Parker did a broad but entertaining job understudying music shop owner Billy, Flora Spencer-Longhurst is fiery and full of presence as Reza, and Valda Aviks gives a hearty, humorous take on the maternal battleaxe figure as ‘Girl’s somewhat brash but well-meaning mother Baruska. 

But it would be amiss to discuss Once and not focus on its other greatest strength - the music. This is not a show which has perfunctorily shoehorned some extra numbers in alongside the original Oscar-winning music featured in the film (such as the sublime ‘Falling Slowly’, as exquisite and ethereal here as ever)  - this is a show which is just as much a celebration of music and the creation of music as it is a love story. Befitting the rich yet Earthy framework around it, the new songs for the show seamlessly blend with those from the film and are an eclectic yet incredibly sophisticated and considered collection of numbers. The writing is knowing and current, and as with all great musicals the songs do a beautiful job of underpinning, advancing or conveying plot and character, and do so here with an intelligence and modern cut that few shows can match. 

Tender, understated yet profoundly moving, Once the Musical is the kind of rare gem that comes along on the theatrical landscape very rarely indeed. It isn’t quite perfect - some of the subplots, such as one involving financial problems and an adversity to capitalism, feel a little by-the-numbers and lesser than the character work that complement it, and indeed there will no doubt be some who might find the whole thing perhaps a little too twee or mawkish, or indeed too far removed from jazz hands and dance numbers to satisfy their musical needs, but these are minor and subjective complaints that do little to detract from the overall whimsy, delight and indeed genius of Once. It’s an honest, heartfelt treat of a show, a unique and brilliantly confident oddity amongst its West End peers and a production that deserves to be seen far more times than its name would suggest. This is the biggest five star recommendation I have given since Les Miserables and Matilda, and whilst I usually resist opting for such strapline sensationalism, seriously, if you’re going to see one West End musical this year, do yourself a favour and make sure it’s Once.

(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars) 

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ONCE THE MUSICAL is currently running at The Phoenix Theatre, London.

CLICK HERE for the show's official website for more information and to book tickets (no booking fees)!
Alternatively telephone the ATG booking line on 0844 8717629 (no booking fees).

1 comment:

  1. reviewnya bagus bro :D yang mau baca review film terbaru, bisa langsung ke selamat membaca :)


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