Review – Once, Phoenix Theatre

Friday 5 April 2013

Once-200x300“It’s got an on-stage bar where you can buy your drinks during the interval!” *

Phil knew how to persuade Andrew to take in Once. That’s all it took.

In fact, it won last year’s Tony Award for Best Musical, and that it was based on an micro-budget indie film (winning an Oscar for best song, “Falling Slowly”) that we hadn’t seen and that it was a bit Oirish. But that was about it.

Even such scant knowledge seems to put one way ahead of the man on the 88. Mention Once to most people and they say, “What’s that?” It has slipped under the radar and really not helped by opening mere weeks after the previous year’s Best Musical Tony-Winning behemoth, Book of Mormon. But then that has a budget to pebbledash its publicity so generously you couldn’t possible not know about it.

But this show has another card up its sleeve. It’s at the Phoenix Theatre. We can’t remember when we were last there (Phil thinks it was probably Into the Woods in 1990) as it has been clogged up largely with that theatrical canker, Blood Brothers for 21 years.

IMG_2890 (800x600) IMG_2891 (800x600)So, the Phoenix has risen again; it was like visiting for the first time. In fact it was such a treat it’s tempting not to talk about the show but just review the theatre: from Theodore Komisarjevsky‘s Italianate design, bars named after Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence (which was once the fabulously monikered Plushy Phoenix Bar) to marvelling at the elaborate busyness of its safety curtain.

But if we must talk about the show we can sum up the plot (book Enda Walsh – Edna Shawl in Whinger parlance) on a plectrum. It’s a ‘Guy’ meets ‘Girl’ story. And yes, before you ask, they’re really called that. Best look away now.

Guy’s a Dublin busker (Declan Bennett) Girl’s a piano-playing Czech (Zrinka Cvitešić) who invites him round to mend her Hoover (when did you last see Hoover maintenance in a musical?), persuades him he can win his ex-girlfriend back by following her to New York and performing that Oscar-winning song for her. Not a very smart suggestion from Girl as – of course – they fall in love..

If we cannot say why the show’s ending proved a talking point for us, we can say why the beginning was. Where exactly does it begin? Our hearts sank as we entered the auditorium: most of the cast were already on stage providing an Irish hootenanny with nary a rigor mortis-limbed hint of Riverdance. Indeed, 10 minutes after the slated start time the house lights were still up until the show-proper seeped into the proceedings.

Like that opening, the whole show proved a bit of a slow burn for us. It wasn’t just our photo-finish sprint onto Bob Crowley’s bar room set for refreshment at the interval that found us in accord. We both agreed that initially Guy’s songs (usually performed with guitar) were probably a bit too James Blunt-ish for our tastes (or what we imagine James Blunt’s work is like), that we were sometimes both struggling to hear the lyrics and that the music was a bit anodyne (music and lyrics come from the original film’s stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová). Lonely students staring gloomily into the unwashed coffee mug of their own romantic rejections might be taken by them.

Then there was the second heart-sinker: the John Doyle-style of actors also doubling up as the band. It must limit the casting call. The leads are both easy on the eye, charismatic and splendidly talented. But how dow do you find a Girl, who is a) attractive b) can act, sing and play the piano and c) speaks with a believable Eastern European accent? Cvitešić is Croatian. Near enough for us, probably not near enough if you’re Czech. Perhaps she was doing a Czech accent? Phil began to fret about the understudying complications.

We earmarked Valda Avicks (Girl’s mother) as a favourite during the show’s warm-up, without realising that we’ve earmarked Avicks previously. We were also hugely amused by the caffine-addicted drummer performed by Ryan Fletcher. Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Jez Unwin also impressed. We hope we’ve got the right people. We were too tight (in the purse strings sense) to purchase programmes (£6 a pop).

John Tiffany’s direction and Stephen Hoggett’s choreography and movement is often inventive and fun, keeping things pacy within the static single setting. The ensemble flaunt their multiple talents as though they believed Simon Cowell was in the house, especially in a perfectly harmonised a cappella number towards the end that is as clear (at last) as it is thrilling. If The Whingers were in possession of spines they’d surely have had tingles up them.

Ultimately Once proved stealthily seductive, leaving us quietly moved and it’s quite a while since the Whingers have been touched anywhere, let alone in a theatre. It’s something of a disappointment for us to discover we might actually be in possession of souls.

The extensive merchandising tat available at the Phoenix should he swept aside for Once-themed paper tissues. Phil took a last glug of wine to prevent a touch of ocular irrigation turning into a scene from Kim Jong-il’s funeral.

The Whingers even emerged humming the insistently catchy “You Really Got a Hold on Me” “Falling Slowly” while Andrew confessed to having been physically affected by the swellingly orchestrated “Mind’s Made Up”.

But it’ll be a hard sell. There are no stars, the source material isn’t that well-known, it’s not a splashy spectacular, there’s not much plot, only one set and it’s opening too soon after that other show. Yet it’s another Bond-themed opening (we saw a preview): Barbara Broccoli is one of the producers, so one must imagine there’s money around for a last pre-birth push.

Maybe they’re hoping for word of mouth. We mouth the word ‘charming’.

* Of course we couldn’t resist the opportunity to go on stage at the interval and buy a drink. Even though a large glass of wine is £8.50 (down by £1 from last week, we were told) which is served in a Once-customised plastic beaker with a lid and a teet to suck through. It’s how Broadway theatres serve their beverages (with child-proof tops – though admittedly we found these easier to negotiate), we hope this is not a pernicious trend. The West End has already embraced Premium Seating. Looks like the baby beaker may be on its way too. Tsk!

Our thanks to for the Once tickets.



6 Responses to “Review – Once, Phoenix Theatre”

  1. Kat Says:

    Love this. Once wasn’t in my list of “OMG MUST BUY” for the previews, just because I’d seen the film and wasn’t in any particular rush to see this adaptation. The mothership is quite keen though, so who knows.

    PS – Andrew definitely got touched up by a cat a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed it.

  2. Dominick Says:

    I loved this show – drawn in by its understated subtlety like your good selves.

    Plastic Broadway beakers are fine for the onstage drinkies but I agree we don’t want to see them making their way to the Plushy Bars.

  3. I loved the film. I hope I will love the show. But maybe songs that seemed intimate and understated on screen don’t translate well to the stage. Anyway, great review as ever. And bars on stage? If only there had been one at Phantom when I was dragged there recently; it may have lessened the pain. Slightly.

  4. Roger Risborough Says:

    I DIDN’T love it . . . . I quite liked it . . . .
    Whereas the play version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time seems a big improvement on the book original, here the musical version feels like a contraction of the film original. A small story is made even smaller, and what’s lacking on stage that leaps off the screen version, is Dublin itself, which is edited out here by the static staging. There are some lovely performances (despite some wayward accents) but I just don’t think the “book” is as good as the film.

  5. David Baxter Says:

    I completely agree about the need for word of mouth recommendations to build an audience for this show, but for what it’s worth once has ours as it’s the best new musical since Avenue Q and might appeal to a similar audience in that it is also for people who would never go to a “traditional” West End show.

  6. Shaun Carvill Says:

    Once is undoubtedly one of the most cleverly staged, superbly choreographed yet touchingly intimate musicals I have yet seen. The ceilidh style opening which demands the audience to be sitting down well before the start is a superb idea and totally fools the audience the cast are excellent musicians/singers/actors. True triple threat stuff.

    Once is ALMOST as good as The Last Five Years at the Factory of Chocolate. Almost. What worries me is that it won’t get the support it deserves from priggish and greyed theatre critics or stupid “see poster – see show” tourists. If I had some money to help it along I would donate. Seriously.

    Put the Mormon book back on the justifiably dusty shelf and take a chance – just ONCE.

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