Descending to the stalls upon entering the Phoenix Theatre, the increasing strumming of acoustic guitars accompanied by the singing of vibrant and vivacious voices can not help but bring to mind the conception of you walking into a local Dublin pub on open mic night as the depths of winter billow and take charge outside.  As you continue further and finally observe the stage, you discover that you may as well be entering your local establishment, complete with a chorus of merry men and women on stage inspiring and enthusing with energetic renditions of local folk songs.  As winner of 8 Tony Awards, Once won’t promote a compelling cultural message, make you think of global political issues, or provide a view on an aspect of society, but what it will do, is provide you with a warm and entertaining refuge from reality blurring the line between musical theatre, and musical concert.

Bob Crowley’s stage design, with the one style throughout the duration of the production, not only transports the audience to a corner of an Irish pub, but allows the cast as orchestra to remain on stage through the play, as well as facilitating change of scenes with the exit and entrance of props and characters.  As staging goes, it’s an intriguing concept that is heavily maximised during the interval when audience members can emerge from their dark corner of the ‘pub’, to visit the bar on stage, and order drinks and snacks, becoming part of the scene they have borne witness to.

Rightly awarded a number of accolades in film and theatre circles, the highlight of Once is the music.  Falling Slowly whenever played, is sure to make the only other audible sound in the theatre a muted gulp as audiences try to hold back emotions.  The musical score is arranged and built well through the play, and Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić as Guy and Girl, are able to bring their characters emotion to the fore through their music and singing.  At one stage, when Guy is trying to negotiate a loan from a bank manager the guitar was strummed so voraciously that finally when finished, a broken string allowed some brief improvised humour to flow into the play between cast.

The simplistic ‘boy meets girl’ plot and lack of powerful themes don’t distract or dissuade from what Once delivers, or sets out to achieve.  While the staging and set provide an often romanticised insight into Dublin and Ireland, the monotonous and linear emotional journey that Once presents us with, could be interpreted as a brief insight into the Dublin and Ireland of 2007-08 when recession began to bite and the culture and music that the Irish are able to create was one of the few things that allowed the people to break free from external circumstance.  With a powerful and talented supporting cast, you need to allow Once to be what it is.  Once will transport you to the Dublin pub where traditional or folk music are played until the early morning, it will make you laugh and smile, and is sure to bring a tear to a dry eye.  However, to truly immerse yourself and become Irish yourself, at the interval – go to the stage and order yourself a Murphy’s.


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