A few years ago my mum bought a film from Sainsbury’s for us to watch. None of us had heard of it but we fell for this tender, moving, indie film and it’s beautiful soundtrack. That film was Once. I’ve been meaning to go and see the stage production ever since it opened and couldn’t believe it had already been over a year. So earlier this month I took a trip to the Phoenix Theatre to finally see Once on stage for myself. I’ve now already seen it twice, which gives you an idea of how much I loved it and I hope it has a long life here in London.
Once tells the story of a young Irish man, known only as Guy, who also happens to be a talented musician. One day he meets a young, outgoing, warm-hearted Czech girl. She sees he is “stopped” after his girlfriend has left him and no longer cares about his music. Through their mutual love of music and song we see their beautiful relationship grow as they bring happiness to each other’s lives. To call it a musical seems wrong to me. I was unsure whether the small, intimate feel of the film would be able to be translated to the stage, but this production is superbly crafted. A musical makes you think of big glossy musical numbers. That is not Once, which instead happens to be a love story, which is told through music and song. Yes there are songs throughout but they move the story forward, just as they do in the film.
Set in a Dublin pub, with additional furniture and props added to suggest a change of location (and which before the show starts is a pub in which the audience is encouraged to enter and enjoy the atmosphere and in the interval also a drink!), the production perfectly conveys the intimate nature of the film and the delicate love story at its heart. The music too is superb, as every actor plays an instrument, whether as accompaniment for the leads in certain scenes or the leads themselves (the Guy and Girl). This means the music really drives the piece along, rather than simply being shoe-horned in every so often for another musical number.
There are so many wonderful characters here – the Girl’s mother and flatmates, the music shop owner Billy and the banker are all fleshed out for the production, but this adds to their characters in a very real way. They bring with them warmth and humour throughout.
The focus though is on the two leads, as it is their growing love story that is the heart of the story and on both my visits to see it they were played by Zrinka Vitesic and Arthur Darvill (better known by some for playing Rory in Doctor Who). They were both utterly superb. Zrinka has been in Once in London since it opened last year and this year justifiably won the Olivier award for her portrayal of this heart-warming character. She brought a perfect blend of playful humour, bossiness and tender emotion to the role and you instantly connect with her as soon as she steps foot on the stage. Arthur was also excellent as the Guy, who is at first bewildered by this whirlwind of a woman who has entered his life. After playing the same role on Broadway for a number of months he clearly understood the soul of the character and his chemistry with Zrinka was beautifully tender and romantic.
It’s inevitable that by the end, most of the audience (myself included) were in tears. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by such a beautiful, old-fashioned story of the joy of love and music.
I had loved the production so much that on hearing that not only Arthur (who was only doing 8 weeks) but also Zrinka were leaving I had to see them again and found myself queuing for day seats last Satuyrday to see their final performance. My friend and me were lucky to be close enough to the front of the queue to secure front row seats. Seeing it for a second time proved to be just as emotional as the first and the emotions of all the actors were understandably heightened on this special night. The performance was just as stunning as the first time, but by the time Falling Slowly begins during the final moments, not only were most of the audience tearing-up, but most of the cast too, as they effectively said farewell to Arthur and Zrinka.
A standing ovation followed and both Arthur and Zrinka gave speeches, thanking the cast, director John Tiffany (who was in the audience), crew and theatre staff for their support. Zrinka also acknowledged the loyal fans who had been there from the start and seen it 50+ times (some of whom were on the front row with us) and Arthur quipped they’d probably seen it more times than he had been in it! The cast then treated us to an encore of one of the numbers from the pre-show, during which all the understudies and new Girl and Guy joined them on stage. It truly was an incredible atmosphere and I felt privileged to be part of it.
I genuinely cannot recommend Once enough. For those who say they don’t like musicals, this isn’t your traditional, show-number musical so you shouldn’t discount it. Its warmth and magical spirit will make you laugh, smile and cry and will leave you feeling deeply moved. I think it could become my favourite musical (which as a long-standing Les Miserables and Matilda fan, says a lot!) and I know I’ll be revisiting it from time to time for as long as it remains in London (which I hope will be for a long long time to come).
Once is at the Phoenix Theatre and is currently booking until May 2015. For more information see the show’s website here: http://www.oncemusical.co.uk
For those who’ve seen and fallen in love with it or for those curious to know more, here is a video of Zrinka and Arthur performing the main song, the beautifully moving Falling Slowly.