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Refreshingly modern: Once, the musical

A spontaneous theatre trip to see new musical Once left Helena Maxwell pleasantly surprised, and offered a refreshing musical insight into modern life.

Having booked tickets in the spirit of spontaneity, and therefore not googled the details of the new West End musical Once, it was with vague expectations of belted chorus lines and camp waltzing that I entered The Phoenix Theatre on a Monday evening. How wrong I was.

Once, based on the modern love story by Enda Walsh, could well be described as an anti-musical. Or at least, anti- the smoke machines, glitter, and ear-splitting falsettos. This, believe it or not, is cool, the stage is a fully functioning bar upon which the audience is invited to drink and dance with the performers pre-show. Not your typical idea of a love story – but then, it is a love story about gig-style music.

Set in Ireland, the protagonist Guy (Declan Bennett) falls for the Czech Girl (Zrinka Cvitesie). However, both Guy and Girl have complicated off-stage relationships, and thus feel that maintaining this new romance is impossible. Nevertheless the love between them blossoms as Girl encourages Guy to record his songs, while she adds haunting vocals over various tracks, backed in other scenes by a honky-tonk Irish band. In the end, of course, their love for one another is admitted through a combination of speech and songs, but this remains a modern ending: Girl has to go back to her husband, Guy to New York to his ex-girlfriend.

Once works on the premise that the songs seem far more natural than any traditional musical – indeed, it is deliberately set up to feel as though you are watching a gig (albeit with comfortable seating and no drunken beer spillages). There is a core cast of twelve hugely talented musicians, who each perform various instruments during the performance – and they are the live orchestra! There is no other music than what you can see being produced live on stage. Guy is particularly passionate and angsty on the guitar, with clean, stunning vocals; Girl has an angelic tone that floats above her piano solos.

Billy, the hysterical shop/pub owner, played by Aidan Kelly, performs some fantastic physical comedy, with his ‘bad’ back and flirtations with Girl. The cast are faultless, moving seamlessly from an Irish jig to a scene of music-less acting, to a weepy melody about loneliness in relationships. Hardly surprising then that the production includes 7 Tony Awards and a Grammy for best Musical Theatre album in its accolades.

The character of Girl’s daughter Ivanka was played on this particular night by Ceyda Ali, an adorable seven year old, which gives Once a family element relatable to wider audiences. Indeed, the camaraderie between the cast highlights the importance of a loving community of different nationalities – (in this case Czech and Irish) in creating precious experiences and ventures. And if you can’t be bothered with all of that, then just listen to the music.

My only criticism of the musical would be that it went on slightly too long – as with all good things, some of the slower songs should have been shortened, as especially towards the end it is easy to lose a sense of the plot. Additionally, some of the choreographed movement felt a little unnecessary. There were times when members of the cast moved together in some slow pilates-like routines to Guy and Girl singing, which might have jarred with the whole down to earth pub/gig idea.

However, if you want to see a new musical, this is it. The casual dress and setting don’t mask the outstanding musical talent and touching story romance and familial love – as Girl says when Guy asks her hopelessly if she will come to New York with him: “Can my mother come?” Unlike many musical theatre productions, it doesn’t feel sickly sweet or leave you wistful for an unattainable fantasy world. Once is uplifting, fun, and real.


Once is playing at the Phoenix Theatre with tickets priced from £19.50. More information here:



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