Oscar-winning musical makes uncertain steps on the stage

The stage version of Once has retained the romantic appeal of the original film

They’ve had Angela’s Ashes – The Musical, and the traditional panto has returned (Oh yes it has) as the Fairfield Halls tries to re-establish its creative credentials after the theatre was dark for three years.
So how does Once, the stage musical of the hit movie now playing there hold up? RORY KELLY went along to the Ashcroft Theatre to find out

Don’t be late…

Even while the house lights are up and as the audience is making their way to the Ashcroft’s tatty and ancient seats, some of the cast have taken to the stage to jam various folk songs.

It is, perhaps, all part of what Once, the stage musical, is trying to capture and convey, the feel of good Irish folk music that is found in traditional pubs, often in the west of Ireland, where musicians sit among punters and sing together.

Here in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, for those first 10 minutes waiting for the musical to start, you feel as though you’ve been invited into something truly special.

The musical then spends the rest of the performance trying to recapture this feeling. It sometimes succeeds, but only as long as there is music playing.

Once is the stage adaptation of the 2006 Irish film which charmed audiences and even won the Oscar for Best Original song – “Falling Slowly”. The film is full of the music of Irish singer-songwriter Glenn Hansard, who played the leading man, and the touring stage musical – playing at the Ashcroft Theatre until January 11 – largely hangs on the strengths of its music alone.

This is not to say that Once’s offerings are meagre. With a cast of 16 who play guitars,  piano, fiddle and bass, Once puffs up Hansard’s songs into immersive ballads and jigs, evocative of the best contemporary Irish folk music. It’s here that Once goes beyond entertainment and can feel like a successful attempt to bring something profound to its audience.

The musical proper beings when lead actor Daniel Healy takes centre stage with a guitar and the lights dim slowly as he plays the break-up song “Say it to Me Now”. Healy has a remarkable voice, and in his wailing he makes the pain of character stuck in a post-break-up rut feel authentic.

Authenticity is what Once is always striving for.

In the film, Hansard plays a totally busted up guitar held together with gaffer tape. On stage, Healy’s immaculate guitar appears to have stickers to recreate the same scratches.

The assembled cast provide a real feel of an Irish pub, as long as they are playing their instruments

It’s when the music stops that Once runs into problems on stage. The tone of the dialogue oscillates wildly from the cooky and even surreal whims of Emma Lucia’s unnamed girl, to the serious themes of loss and fear, with the former regularly undermining the latter. The stakes of the play are about pushing Healy’s lead character to overcome his anxieties about failure so that he can pursue music. At the same time, our two leads are drawn closer together into a relationship that Lucia’s character feels incapable of fulfilling.

Lucia and Healy have real chemistry, but their dialogue is thin and peppered with often unfunny jokes (frequently centred around their respective Czech and Irish accent) that break any tension they succeed in creating. Their relationship is the most believable and moving when they are singing together, in particular, “Falling Slowly”.

You get the sense that the team behind Once know that the music is their strong suit. As the plot trundles along, scenes without musical numbers are sometimes accompanied by playing from the cast sat in the background of the scene.

This occasionally manages to inject some drama into the plot, until you focus back on the scene and all the flaws reassert themselves. Never is this more true than with the character Billy, the owner of the music shop where our leads regularly play together. Through no fault of actor Dan Bottomley, who makes a decent effort to make this character entertaining, Billy is the single most irritating and least funny part of the show.

His humour is meant to derive from his erratic and changeable behaviour but it’s so broad and mawkish that it feels as though its aimed at children, if it wasn’t for the fact that the content of the humour isn’t exactly child-friendly. Once (which carries an age guidance for audiences of 10+) contains a few references to sex, others to drinking, and a few words beginning with “F” that attempt to capture some of that “mythical” Irish charm.

Emma Lucia and Daniel Healy, the lead actors in the stage adaptation of Once

Very little of it works. The standout exception to this is Samuel Martin’s turn as the bank manager, who Healy petitions for a loan to record a demo in a professional studio.

Martin makes the character likable, absurd and gives a genuinely hysterical performance of a bad, old-fashioned Irish folk song. In this moment, it seems as though Once is taking a well-deserved shot at the sillier elements of Irish folk music culture. This, however, is unconvincing given that it comes after a tedious speech from Lucia’s character about Ireland as the land of poets and soulful bards (something which I can promise you most Irish people are tired of hearing).

Sadly, apart from a few good jokes sending up “romantic Ireland”, Once remains largely committed to the tourist board view of Irish culture.

By and large, Once is charming. Libby Watson’s set design hinges on the central element of an Irish pub complete. The music is often totally immersive and at its best can convince you of things that the dialogue and drama cannot. There is little jeopardy in the plot and more than a few annoying characters.

But Once’s goal is to be an affirmation of music as something both profound and fun. If you go expecting that then you won’t be disappointed.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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