Beginning life on the tightest of budgets as an indie film in 2007, Once was made into a stage musical that premièred Off-Broadway four years later and has since been produced all over the world. A new production ran at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch back in 2018, and is now heading out on a UK tour which begins at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall.
A busker (identified only as ‘Guy’) finishes what he thinks will be his last set on the streets of Dublin, walking off and leaving his guitar behind. Unbeknownst to him he has had an audience of one: a Czech woman (identified only as ‘Girl’). When she sees him leaving something as precious as a guitar behind she realises the implications and stops him for a conversation, eventually persuading him to fix her hoover in return for a musical performance of her own. She first plays some Mendelssohn on the piano in a music shop which she frequents, before finding some of Guy’s sheet music and reluctantly draws him into a duet of one of his own compositions. After discovering that he is really struggling after his girlfriend left him to live in New York, Girl makes it her mission to help Guy find happiness (and maybe even his lost love) again. But will everything go to plan?
Once is a wonderful celebration of folk music, beginning the evening with a pre-show set of traditional Irish songs, and the influence of both Irish & Czech music can be heard throughout the show – whether it’s the more traditional-sounding Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka or the more subtle influences that come through on Gold. There’s no denying that the music is the heart and soul of this show, and the audience is treated to some very fine musical performances.
Maybe it’s just because the set is quite compact, but it does feel like there are a few too many people involved; at one point there are three fiddles and several acoustic guitars, plus far too many bodies to fit comfortably on the stage. It has a tendency to get quite busy – in perhaps seeking to inject some dynamism into certain numbers it goes too far in the other direction. Throughout the show, most (if not all) of the company are dotted around the stage in the shadows; obviously this is partly a practical measure as they’re playing all the music, but attempts to artfully involve them occasionally feel a bit forced and out of place (such as simultaneously picking up their instruments and practically standing to attention).
What’s also a bit disappointing is the dearth of Irish and particular Eastern European cast members – all the more so when you consider that the show actively wants to celebrate the music from these areas. It might also help with the accents – despite a dialect coach being on the team, they are decidedly ropy and that does spoil the overall effect of the show.
There are some very charming performance in there, however, and I had forgotten quite how funny it could be. Dan Bottomley, for example, is terrific value as music shop owner Billy, particularly when his Dubliner instincts lead him to clash with the Bank Manager, a Cork native (Samuel Martin, also excellent). Lloyd Gorman is hilariously funny as Svec, with his unique method of muffling the drum kit and his attempts at typical Irish phrases – learnt from soap opera Fair City. Emma Lucia and Daniel Healy form a brilliant partnership as Girl and Guy, the latter particularly impressing with some heartfelt renditions of Once‘s beautiful songs.
My verdict? A welcome return for this gorgeous show – the music truly is its heart and soul.