Once at The Phoenix Theatre

Enda Walsh’s new musical ‘Once’ at the Phoenix Theatre is an adaptation of the independent film of the same name. Upon hearing this I was instantly dubious of how well a play – and a musical at that – could accurately convey the complexity of a plotline written for film. However, Walsh has struck gold with a witty script, emotional depth and fantastic cast.

The Dublin based story is set around an anonymous failing busker whose life is going nowhere. Depressed after his girlfriend leaves him to move to New York, he struggles to enjoy his music, his songs being intrinsically linked to their affair. His life is turned around with the introduction of ‘Girl’ – an anonymous Czech immigrant, and her host of eccentric friends and family, the interactions of
which provide ample humour and comic relief throughout the performance. ‘Girl’ makes it her project to lift the man’s spirits by getting him a record contract and flying him to New York to win his girlfriend back. I do not wish to spoil the storyline, so let’s just say that this aim becomes less important as the two realise their compatibility, but never abandoned, resulting in a constant tension
(romantic, not necessarily sexual). You will have to see it yourself to see how this potential love affair resolves.

The performance as a whole was brilliantly enjoyable, with a small but versatile cast. Whilst Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitšié (Girl) deserve special credit (it is impossible to imagine their characters being played by anyone else), the supporting cast were similarly talented. All could sing, dance and play numerous instruments to excellent degrees, whilst remaining mysteriously modest and believable as characters. This believability of character was enhanced by the evident friendships between the cast members and the passion with which they performed (I noticed ‘Girl’ shedding tears of pride during the curtain call, and she should be proud. Very proud indeed).

Lighting was utilised to full potential in different ways to evoke different settings and atmospheres all contained within one unchanging set. Bob Crowley’s set was similarly versatile, and turned into the theatre’s bar during the interlude, where the actors were jamming for us to marvel at their skill up close.

The main songs and slightly bizarrely choreographed pieces of interpretive dance are the only potential downfalls of the play. The interlude music and less crucial scores were more engaging than the songs around which the storyline depends, which are perhaps clichéd and too sentimental, and all in all unremarkable. However, you don’t need to be a muso to appreciate the spontaneity and energy with which the talented cast musically interact in intriguing and genius Czech-Irish-Nu-folk-inspired tracks, playing traditional instruments.

Maybe I would feel differently having seen the film first – a film I’m not sure I want to see as it may ruin the musical experience – but with a combination of brilliant casting, musical diversity, emotional insight and a deliciously comforting set I feel Walsh has succeeded in creating a thoroughly enjoyable and spirit-lifting performance.