Sunday, 22 September 2013

Once at the Phoenix Theatre

Once intrigued me from the moment I became aware of it. There seemed to be a big, loud buzz about a show that was small, quiet and simple. Completely different from anything the musical theatre world has seen before, it seemed just the tonic for an industry that seems to be suffering from a disease of style over substance. 

I thought this gentle show would be a perfect choice for my Thursday matinee.

This was my first visit to the Phoenix Theatre. It's an intimate space and reminds me of the Garrick, right down to the soft, intermittent rumbling of the northern line tube running beneath.

The auditorium is alive with the sound of music as soon as I step through the doors, 15 minutes before the scheduled start time. Several audience members sit in the midst of an Irish pub set, among whirling violinists, strumming guitarists and percussionist drumming away on the side of wooden boxes. Drinks are being served at the bar onstage. Straight away we are transported to a typical Dublin pub and made to feel like welcome patrons. 

The jovial, bustling pub seamlessly blends into the beginning of the show proper with a slow dim of the house lights as guy takes the stand and throws himself into his first, heartfelt song 'Leave'.

The story, adapted for stage by irish playwright Enda Walsh, revolves around two people who randomly meet. We never know their names. They are known simply as 'Guy' and 'Girl'. Guys life has come to a halt, he's in a rut and just about ready to give up on music. Then Girl breezes into his life and turns it all around in a matter of days. They develop a quick, strong connection through music and this is the real locus of the story - in the words of Markéta Irglová:- "you can be a total stranger to somebody, and they can be a stranger to you, and yet when you start playing music together... there's something that happens where it's almost like your souls merge"

The songs in the show are all written by songwriting duo Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Hansard, like Guy, is Irish and Irglova, like Girl, is a czech native and this show was born out of their shared experience of creating music. The result of their combined input is a folksy/indie kind of  music, reminiscent of Mumford and Sons, that cuts straight to the heart and soul without any grandeur. The complete antithesis of the stereotypical idea of showtunes. 

There are no set changes during this performance. To match the simplicity of the story the designers were keen to keep the set understated. The different locales are implied by the placement of the pub chairs & tables and through Natasha Katz's lighting design. The placement of a mirror over the bar is a really nice touch, allowing us to see angles that would otherwise be denied - watching Girl's hands play the notes of the piano feels like we've been permitted special access into a personal moment. 

From the moment Declan Bennett sets foot on stage, in the role of Guy, he gives off an intense, melancholy presence but a presence that certainly dominates the stage in an understated way.

It's impossible to dislike Girl, as portrayed by Zrinka Cviteš, she brings a charm to the role that makes you want her as a friend. Her character encourages and pushes Guy toward his dream and yet, she has her own fragilities that she must try to deal with. 

The rest of the cast all help to create the warm, comforting atmosphere of the show, touching on the lives of the two central characters all the way through. Ryan Fletcher as Svec provided the ridiculousness to lighten the heavier moments, as well as Tim Parker who was on as the character of Billy in this performance.

For me, the song highlights are Say It To Me Now (wish it was a bit longer), Leave, The Hill and, of course, Falling Slowly.

Once is a whisper of a love story. It creeps up on you without a big announcement, you barely even notice it's there, until you're choking back that lump in your throat during the nostalgic reprisal of 'Falling Slowly'. There's a wrenching feeling that this song that began their quiet love is now their parting song and that this particular tale is without conclusion. The pathos of a love story that was never even allowed to begin.

Recommended if:- You're looking for a show that draws back all the glitz and grandeur of the modern musical to reveal a heartwarming story without pretensions

Avoid if:- You're out for a loud evening of high energy choreography, familiar songs and complicated sets & scene changes

For more information, or to book tickets, please visit the official website

I have to mention the programme for this show, which is well worth the money. 
My programmes for the other 2 shows I saw are identical apart from the actual show information. But the programme for Once looks like someone has put thought into what the audience might like to see in it and there is more show related content than adverts, unlike my other programmes on this occasion; Another disappointing indicator of the money grabbing nature of many other shows on the West End at the moment.