REVIEW: ONCE (Fairfield Halls) ★★★

A new touring production of the hit musical ‘Once’ brings an experienced leading pair to sing their way through this tale of Irish culture and unrequited love that is sure to repeat the success of previous versions.

The recently refurbished Fairfield Halls hosts the first leg of this UK tour of the musical, based on the 2007 film of the same name. The music and lyrics are written by the stars of that film, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova; with their Oscar-winning song ‘Falling Slowly’ featuring prominently. Enda Walsh’s book tries to capture the mood and heart of the film whilst incorporating a wider cast of characters and a more accessible humour.

The story involves a disillusioned Dublin busker, only referred to as ‘Guy’ (Daniel Healy), who, on the verge of quitting, is persuaded to return to singing by a young, enthusiastic Czech musician ‘Girl’ (Emma Lucia). Whilst the chemistry between the two of them is immediate (as is the musical connection), she is already married to an absentee husband and he is on the rebound from an ex ,who has moved to New York. Through force of personality alone, she gets her new friend and an assortment of misfit musicians into a recording studio to commit the music to CD.

At its heart, Once is a musical rom-com, with a will-they-won’t-they relationship at the centre of the story but with a range of comic characters to provide relief. Without a more complicated story to work with the music has to carry a lot of the weight, with the large cast playing a whole host of instruments on stage to recreate the vibe of a traditional Irish pub where everyone is a poet and musician and happy to join in with the folk music. Occasionally this notion that every Dubliner is a poet at heart and that all immigrants are hardworking and optimistic runs the risk of crossing the line into caricature but there is sufficient charm in the humour and the songs to stop disbelief from setting in.

Both leads are talented performers and deliver their songs confidently. Healy’s voice would sit comfortably in Mumford and Sons, whilst Lucia has a more classical musical theatre voice. Both are believable in character and the relationship feels warm and genuine. There is good support from the rest of the cast, in particular Susannah van den Berg who is a force of nature as Girl’s mother Baruska, and Lloyd Gorman as larger than life Svec. Dan Bottomley slightly over-eggs his role as comic sidekick Billy but otherwise there are some clearly talented musicians on display.

Director Peter Rowe and choreographer Francesca Jaynes ensure the production is slick and well-coordinated, although the pace of the second act does dip too low. Libby Watson’s set re-creates an Irish pub and the other settings are conjured through props rolled on stage by the cast.

Once will no doubt prove to be an enjoyable night out for many as it goes on tour but despite its obvious charms it is unlikely that the simple message about the power of music and community deliver any challenge to its audiences or send anyone home any the wiser about the human condition.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Mark Senior

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