THEATRE REVIEW: Once, Phoenix Theatre

running until 21 March 2015

Once the Musical at the Phoenix Theatre (Photo: Chris Goldberg)
Once at the Phoenix Theatre, West End (Photo: Chris Goldberg)

This visit has been a long time coming – I’ve been wanting to see Once ever since it hit the West End in April 2013 and word spread of its unique charm and understated pulling power. Thanks to Mousetrap Theatre‘s ‘West End for £10‘ scheme for 19 to 23-year-olds (I’m hanging onto this for just a few more months!), I finally made it through the pouring rain to the Phoenix Theatre, to have the cockles of my heart warmed by this Irish musical.

Before we even get into the meat of the show, Once thrills its audience by offering the chance to step onto a West End stage themselves, as the set doubles as a pre-show bar. The atmosphere is immediately established as the band – also the cast – delight us with a range of folk numbers, setting up a promise of good things to come as their relaxed approach belies both talent and passion that pervades the whole show.

As the show-proper begins, a similar feel of community and spirit is retained as the cast remain on stage at all times, taking on the various roles of musicians and ensemble. Tim Prottey-Jones, Mathew Hamper and Jez Unwin stand out in the comedic roles of Billy, Andrej and the Bank Manager respectively, but the strength is in the full ensemble when they take to the stage as one, in numbers such as a gorgeous a capella version of ‘Gold’. In the lead roles, David Hunter (‘Guy’) and Jill Winternitz (‘Girl’) manage to imbue their awkward, stilted relationship with charm, as the traditional boy-meets-girl narrative becomes a poignant tale in which real world responsibilities intervene in the fairytale romance. While Hunter’s vocals have a suitably raw quality, Winternitz’s is purer, yet this blend certainly works in the signature tune ‘Falling Slowly’, and becomes captivating.

It’s true that Once might not be to everyone’s tastes, in its understated style and quiet sentiment, but I couldn’t help but be warmed and drawn in by this show that somehow manages to be both mournful and uplifting. It is sweet without becoming saccharine, balancing silences full of unspoken emotion with wit and comedy that is undeniably Irish – Enda Walsh wrote the book, adapting John Carney’s 2007 film of the same name – and which prevents the show from falling into cliché.

Although it is ostensibly simple, the show is designed and directed with skill and subtlety. The single set is loosely transformed into different locations with fluid movement and lighting, and rather than the stop, start, burst into song pattern of some shows, the music feels inherently woven into this time, place and narrative. Once dispenses with flashiness but that does not mean it lacks finesse, talent or heart-tugging passion. As Ronan Keating joins the cast in its closing months, I hope this star casting lends the right note to the show and does not distract from its beautiful heart and soul.

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