Thursday 30th October 2014. A quick cup of tea in a decidedly dodgy cafe next to The Phoenix theatre, London – a slightly off the beaten track theatre, but on the Charring Cross Road, so still technically “West End”. A three quarters full theatre, despite being half term. What had my daughter and I let ourselves in for I wondered? The musical we were about to see has billed itself as a “revolutionary new musical” – which sounded promising. Something different was certainly going on. As we took our seats the house lights were up, as were the stage lights – no safety curtain in sight. The stage set was a pub bar. It looked convincingly accurate. The stage started to fill with people – yet it was not the scheduled start time. People were chatting on stage, having a drink as the bar, sitting in the seats around the sides, and then someone began to sing, guitars, mandolins and violins began to play – and everyone started having a good time, clapping and tapping their feet to the infectious beat of what I’d probably call Irish folk rock music if I had to give it a label. The audience were allowed onto the stage to mingle with the crew and cast and to even buy a drink at the bar. Different, yes, revolutionary, not really.
As the time approached for the performance to start, the audience were gently ushered off stage, the house lights dimmed slowly and the transition from what was described as a pre-performance hootenanny to the actual performance happened without anyone really noticing. It was as if we were in that pub a moment ago, and now we were observing a scene from a convenient side table.
Describing this musical isn’t going to be easy – you’ll have to go and see it to really appreciate it. But broadly it’s appeal and cleverness resides in three main areas, firstly the set itself – it is simple and the set never changes, yet scenes change within it with some clever furniture rearranging and subtle lighting effects. The back of the set is dominated by one large bar mirror, surrounded by many other smaller mirrors arranged haphazardly. The mirrors are what brings each scene to life, as the audience gets an almost 360 degree view of the performance and performers. When instruments are played, we see piano keys reflected when the piano is head on to us, we see the reflected symmetry of the dance routines and snapshots of what the actors are doing throughout the performance which gives you the feeling of both being a little bit of a voyeur, but also of really being there inside that pub as the mirrored images draw you in closer. It’s intimate.
Secondly the music, which is fresh, appealing, with great rhythms and performed with real love – each and every one of the cast could sing, play an instrument with some skill and of course act – I suspect casting was not easy for this musical. Thirdly, the story and the writing itself. The musical is based on the film and is cleverly adapted for stage by Enda Walsh. It is not a complicated story, there are no twists and turns of subplots, there isn’t a long list of characters to keep track of throughout the story. But it is believable. Although it is a story, it isn’t fantasy, this could happen at any time or place in Europe, though based in Dublin it does exude it’s own Irish charm. There are no glib Lloyd-Webber like lyrics and musical “standards”. The music has a raw Irish feel to it, the type of music you want to dance to, the type of music you would dance to in any Irish pub. The same goes for the dialogue, it is earthy and real. There is humour, angst, and love. The story revolves around the main characters ‘Guy’, played by David Hunter (a semi finalist on ITVs “SuperStar in the search for a lead for Jesus Christ Superstar) and ‘Girl’, beautifully played by Jill Winternitz (whose debut was as Baby in Dirty Dancing in the West End) and their love of their music, and their gently growing feelings for each other, though this is no classic love story.
To describe Once as a musical is putting it in the wrong pigeonhole. There is a lot of music, but it doesn’t punctuate the story, because the music is the story, so you are swept along with it. You believe the music, you believe in the soul that is in the music, because it is performed so well and so convincingly. It is hard to believe that what you are watching is acted out several times a week, because it feels so alive and as though the performance is being brought to you for the first time. That possibly stems from the fact that these actor/musicians are simply all in love with music and playing, they are infectiously enthusiastic in their performances and because the entire cast is on stage for most of the performance there is really nowhere to hide – especially with all those mirrors!
I am still not sure I’d class Once as revolutionary, but it was refreshingly different.
As the title of this article says , I will try anything Once – and I would urge anyone to try Once and least once. You’ll come out smiling, singing, maybe jigging – and you’ll almost certainly buy the CD on the way out (avoid the queue and buy it on the way in – you will want it!).