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Review: Once, Phoenix Theatre, London


There's a mock-up of a Dublin bar on the stage of the Phoenix Theatre (all foxed mirrors and nicotine-stained walls) and in the build-up to the show and during the interval, punters are invited to mosey on down and have a jar (or rather a plastic glass with a baby-proof non-spill lid) of some Irish tipple, while the cast perform a vigorous in-yer-face hootenany – all swirling fiddles, and chthonic stamping that makes the sisters' efforts in Dancing at Lughnasa look to be a tiny bit the dansant by comparison.

This is the set-up for the London premiere of one of the more surprising winners of  8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. With a new book by Enda Walsh, Once is a stage version of the 2006 Irish musical film of the same name, written and directed by John Carney.  What is remarkable – given that theatre almost inevitably entails a greater degree of demonstrativeness — is how the beguiling low-budget understatedness of the movie has not been entirely violated in spirit during the time that this adaptation, which began life as New York Theatre Workshop, has travelled on an upward trajectory and wound up wowing Broadway. 

With minimal props and in what feels like a cross between a concert and drama, John Tiffany's charmingly funny and affecting production comes with shades of John Doyle (the director in whose Sondheim productions actors double as instrumentalists).  It tells the story of an unlikely friendship that demonstrates the power of music both to express deep psychic hurt and to perform a cure of sorts.  The central couple has no specific names – the Guy is a designer-stubbled brooding busker (Declan Bennett) whose girlfriend has abandoned him for New York and who is himself about to abandon composing until he runs into the Girl (Zrinka Cvitesic), a piano-playing Czech single mother who can hear the pain and the talent in his music.

He earns a living in vacuum-cleaner maintenance; she just happens to have a wonky vacuum-cleaner.  Fate.  During her attempts to reconcile him with his ex-girlfriend and through the switch of allegiance, the Guy’s music to my ear does not audibly change or deepen in manner (as it surely should) from the rather James Blunt-like “Falling Slowly”, the Oscar-winning song.  Indeed one of the most ravishing sequences is an a cappella reprise by the company of a number from the outset.  This company's wonderful instrumental playing, comic characterisations and supple stylised movement offsets the shortcomings in the over-protracted love story and make it well worth giving Once the once-over.

Until 30 Nov; 0844 871 7629