Once

Princess Theatre, Melbourne, October 18 matinee

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons. Photo: Jeff Busby

Once is a lovely, wistful little musical that could charm the birds from the trees, so it could. It certainly had the audience entranced at the performance I saw.

Based on John Carney’s low-budget 2006 film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also wrote the songs, it maintains the bittersweet, understated feel of the movie but has enough added brio to really shine on stage.

Winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical when it opened on Broadway in 2012, the Australian production is co-produced by John Frost with the Melbourne Theatre Company.

As soon as you enter the auditorium you are swept up into the world of the piece. Several performers are already on stage making music and dancing, joined by various members of the audience who hang around, drink in hand, as if at an impromptu ceilidh in an Irish pub. Then, before we know it, we are into the action of the piece.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of an Irish Guy and Czech Girl (we never learn their names). They meet when she passes him busking on the street, howling a song in anger and pain. She recognises some kind of kindred spirit in him. Both are musicians (she plays piano) and both are dealing with difficult, unresolved relationships.

Disillusioned, he is on the verge of giving up music but over the next five days she badgers and cajoles him into recording an album. He meets her mother, daughter and friends – who support him on the album – and as they bond over music, love quietly blooms between them. But it is not destined to be.

Bob Crowley’s set design is an old-style pub with walls covered by framed, tarnished mirrors. A hidden walkway over the top is used for brief scenes when the Guy and Girl escape town. Other than that different locations are suggested with little more than the odd prop moved quickly into place.

The lo-tech nature of the staging adds to the charm. The busking scene segues into a hoover repair shop simply by someone pushing a vacuum cleaner across the stage to Girl, for example. It looks deceptively simple but director John Tiffany has done an ingenuous job of keeping the action flowing in ways that are inventive and often witty.

The direction is complemented by Steven Hoggett’s stunning movement – which isn’t dancing in the ‘big-production-number’ way of many musicals. Instead it combines dancing that emerges directly from the story with more gestural movement that feels deeply imbued with emotion.

Tiffany and Hoggett collaborated on Black Watch, the superb National Theatre of Scotland production seen at the 2008 Sydney Festival, and their work is just as special here.

The cast of Once.  Photo: Jeff Busby

The cast of Once. Photo: Jeff Busby

The songs, which combine a Celtic folksy feel with light pop-rock and gorgeous ballads, spring naturally from the action and seduce with their infectious, lilting rhythms. They include the haunting Academy Award-winning song Falling Slowly.

The fact that the music is performed by the cast, all of whom play instruments (fiddle, guitar, cello, mandolin, drums etc) and most of whom rarely leave the stage, also adds to the charm of the show.

Enda Walsh’s book manages to include sentiment without becoming sentimental and offsets it with lots of humour, from the straight-talking bluntness of Girl to the slapstick humour of her manic drummer friend. When Guy sings a song in the pub, introducing it as one that he wrote, someone in the crowd groans “Aw, fuck.”

The use of surtitles is also cleverly done. Most of the dialogue between the Czech characters is conducted in English with Czech surtitles, but occasionally they speak Czech with English surtitles. It’s a neat touch and used in just the right way.

The production has been beautifully cast. Madeleine Jones (best known in Sydney as a straight actor for companies including Sport for Jove and pantsguys) is gorgeous as Girl, underpinning her pugnacious, straight-speaking feistiness with plenty of heart. Her comic timing is great and she has a lovely voice.

Tom Parsons (who is a British actor) captures Guy’s lanky, slightly daggy-shaggy quality but also conveys his soulfulness and pain, and he sings with a heartfelt rawness. The chemistry between them is tangible and when they sing and make music together it’s magic.

There’s a terrific supporting cast. Amy Lehpamer exudes great energy and zesty charisma as the fiddle-playing, sassy Reza (one of Girl’s Czech friends). Colin Dean is very funny as the grouchy music shop owner Billy who hankers after Girl, as is Susan-ann Walker as Girl’s mother, Brent Hill as Czech drummer Svec, and Anton Berezin as the bank manager with musical aspirations.

The ending is bittersweet. The unfulfilled love story gives the piece an air of melancholy but both Girl and Guy have been reinvigorated by their relationship, while the friendships that blossom – even between the initially hostile Billy and the bank manager – are uplifting. Somehow it all feels real: some things work out, some don’t but that’s life.

A paen to the power of music and the importance of friendship, Once creeps gently up on you and plays with your heartstrings. I must admit I didn’t expect to be so moved by it but I went home enchanted.

Once is at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until December 31. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au

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