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Rating: *****

Phoenix Theatre, London

Summary: Gloriously engaging tale of disillusioned Busker and a motivational a Czech immigrant. Funny, poignant, heart-warming story with a wonderful soundtrack and beautifully produced.

OncelogoBased on the critically acclaimed, award-winning independent film of the same name Once follows a chance meeting between a disillusioned busker and a Czech immigrant and their journey over the course of a physically and emotionally transformative week.

The setting for the stage is the inside of a Dublin pub, which is strange since no scenes actually take place in the pub; but it becomes almost invisible during the performance, providing a neutral backdrop to various locations we are required to imagine (a street corner, a flat, a bank etc.). It starts with the audience on-stage and enjoying a drink (yes, the bar onstage will serve you a drink!) and one by one the cast come onstage and start an impromptu performance of Irish drinking songs and folk ballads.

Before you know it, you’re back in your seat, the cast have moved to the side of the stage and Guy, the busker, is centre stage singing a love song he composed for his girlfriend. And, seamlessly, the show has started; Guy is on the street performing his songs to no one. Frustrated and disheartened he throws his guitar down and decides to give up his music.

‘The girl’ a young Czech immigrant has been listening to Guy and, impassioned by his songs and angered by his willingness to quit, she strikes up a conversation and in doing so begins a weeklong friendship that transforms both their lives.

Keeping the original music from the movie and using an expanded book by Enda Walsh we see the building of a friendship ignited by music that helps the two lead characters move on from their own respectively stagnant lives. It’s a very well observed script that is loaded with many more laughs than the story may suggest.

The staging is beautifully simple, almost minimalist, leaving the audience’s imagination to take on most of the work. This simplified setting is enhanced to glorious effect by ‘movement director’ Steven Hoggett, whose fluid, ethereal choreography gives the production a fantasy quality that naturally supports the underlying narrative.

The cast are stellar too. They’re not only the cast, they’re the orchestra too. When not acting, each member of the casts sits on the side of the stage and plays the accompanying music to a scene; a wonderful device that adds to the fairytale like quality of the production. Leading the cast are Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitešić (The Girl). Both give performances rooted in believability; Declan, whose day job as a singer/sonwriter helps bring real depth of emotion to the musical performances he gives and Zrinka provides one of the most nuanced performances you’re likely to see in musical theatre.

The music is at the heat of this production and the real joy in Once is that the songs are not only integral to the story, but naturally fit into the narrative and provide the backbone to the emotional journey unfolding. John Tiffany’s direction brings all these elements together in an engaging and, at times, surreal manner but one rooted in realism.

Where the vast majority of musicals today hammer your senses with over the top orchestrations, loud music, kick-ass choreography, special effects and the rest, Once just puts on a beautifully performed show with real heart and humour. There is no over the top spectacle, but it’s the most emotionally charged, engaging, watchable show around, and it will stay with you long after the house lights come on.

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