The show begins the second you step into the theatre. With the lights up, the cast plays an Irish folk song in an inviting manner reminiscent of movie moments in the local pub. The Grand Theatre in London’s production of Once, directed by Tracey Flye, is a modern take on musicals featuring beautifully harmonious folk music, understated costumes and set, and a talented cast who serves as a full orchestra. Once is based on the book by Edna Walsh, and a movie written and directed by John Carney of the same name.
The Tony award wining musical follows the story of Guy (Jeremy Walmsley) and Girl (Amanda LeBlanc) living in Dublin, Ireland. After a devastating heartbreak, vacuum repairman Guy has become disinterested in pursuing his music. That is until he meets Girl, who convinces him to go after his dreams and his lost love. Girl’s conveniently broken vacuum (which is affectionately referred to as a ‘hoover’), sends them into a spiralling friendship and love story as they team up to combine musical talent and launch Guy’s music career.
The show features the award winning music of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, including the timeless “Falling Slowly.” The cast acts as a full thirteen piece orchestra; each ensemble member dances while playing allowing the music to take on an organic feel. The cast does not spontaneously burst into song and perfectly choreographed dances; rather, they perform to one another. The folksy and casual style of the music moves Once away from the traditional style of show tunes and flashy musicals. The ensemble simply sits to the side of the stage to exit the scene, giving the impression that they are as much as part of the audience as the audience is a part of the cast.
Both the set and costumes are minimal which allows the cast to jump quickly between scenes. This movement is vital to the progress of the story, as otherwise the singular set and costumes would seem slow in pace. Although pianos and vacuums are brought on to advance the story, the overarching set is a beautifully crafted bar that has the right amount of home-style pub charm while still paying homage to previous creatives. During intermission the set becomes a functional bar and the audience is invited on stage. Pictures can be found hung around the bar of the Irish artists the cast evokes when speaking about culture. The set includes portraits of everyone from Oscar Wilde, to Samuel Beckett, to U2’s Bono. These references give this timely show a timeless quality.
Through both the music and the set, Once effectively collapses the traditional divide between audience and cast –they invite you in and watch along with you. The cast does not only speak about culture, they create it. As Girl in the first act tells the banker (Jeff Hamacher) in hopes of procuring a small loan, those who invest in culture create culture.
The cast of London’s production of Once was astounding. The ensemble members stood out as individuals yet moved perfectly as one entity. The performances earned both cheers of laughter and chills from the audience. Girl’s comedic timing and in tune Czech accent made her story all the more heartbreaking; it was clear the audience had been rooting for her. The shop owner, Billy (Daniel Williston), earned applause from the audience for his comedic angry monologues.
I would recommend Once to anyone looking for a step away from traditional musicals. The show does not feature flashy dance routines or a quirky hero’s quest, but rather a set of musical numbers whose beauty will give you chills. The character’s enthusiasm inspires and invites you to join them. Once runs nightly at the Grant Theatre until November 4th. Information about tickets can be found through the Grand Theatre London.