In general, the vogue for adapting films into stage musicals tends to be looked down upon in musical theatre circles. Ghost, Top Hat, Legally Blonde, Singin’ in the Rain, The Bodyguard, Footloose, Dirty Dancing… the list seems to get ever longer.
The quality of such adaptations varies wildly – and generally, the closer the stage version attempts to remain to the original, the less creative and enjoyable the result for the audience.
Once is the latest movie to make the transition to the stage. One advantage it has is that the film itself is comparatively little-known, despite the song Falling Slowly winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But mostly, its staging ignores that origin, and instead treats itself as a standalone piece of art. The result is a sublime evening of warm humour, great songs and heartbreakingly beautiful romance.
Set over the course of a week in Dublin, Once tells the story of an unnamed ‘guy’ and ‘girl’ (Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić), who meet and bond over a love of music. As they pull together favours and ply on friendships in order to produce a demo CD of the guy’s songs, the feelings that are clearly developing between them rapidly deepen.
All of the cast play instruments throughout, but this is no actor-musician scaling down of an originally larger piece – the music is intrinsic to the life and spirit of the characters, in a way that wouldn’t work if performed from an orchestra pit.
The script by Enda Walsh is incredibly warm, and often hilarious – but the humour feels natural, never forced and throws the romanticism into sharp relief. In the same way, when the Czech characters are talking to each other, we hear heavily accented English but see surtitles in their native tongue. That provides humour initially – but in Act 2, delivers an emotional punch to the gut that would be ineffective if delivered in any other form.
While the central romance forms the core of the evening, this is a true ensemble piece without a single weak link. On the night we saw the production, Jamie Cameron was understudying the role of the Bank Manager – and like the best understudies, you would never have known had there not been a paper slip inserted into the programme. This is Cameron’s professional debut, but it did not feel like it.
Opening at pretty much the same time as The Book of Mormon, Once does seem to be struggling to gain the audience it deserves at the moment. Hopefully that will change – on the upside, it does mean that ticket availability for this essential, unmissable piece of theatre should be somewhat better than for other, lesser current West End productions.
A tip: while the ‘curtain’ officially goes up at 7.30, from about 7 the bar onstage is available for a limited number of audience members to purchase wine or beer. You can remain onstage while some of the cast come on to perform a selection of Irish and Czech folk songs prior to the start of the show ‘proper’. If you take advantage of the onstage experience, I’d recommend taking your seat sooner rather than later – the theatre’s natural acoustics mean that you can appreciate the music so much better offstage than on.