Once

Enda Walsh, Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
New Wolsey Theatre/Queen's Theatre, Hornchuch
New Wolsey, Ipswich
to

Once started life as a 2008 delicate micro-budget film, written by John Carney and set in Dublin, about the sweet love story between a failing Irish musician and a Czech flower girl. In 2010, Enda Walsh—whose work includes Disco Pigs—was invited to put it on stage. It opened on Broadway and won 8 Tony awards before being transferred to the West End in 2013.

So how do you stage an almost ethereal love story where one of the stars is the city of Dublin itself?

The result is something of a cross between a lock-down night in an Irish pub interspersed with eavesdropping moments between the two main protagonists, underlined with a hefty dose of Gaelic music and emotional love ballads.

The set is a brilliant interpretation of a Dublin bar—the detail is perfect and you can feel the atmosphere straight away as the 11-piece band is already well into an Irish ceilidh-type performance as the audience take their seats. There is no doubt they are all great musicians—and the energy and enthusiasm for the music is almost palatable.

But I think for me this was one of the issues I had: throughout the evening it felt as though the cast were trying too hard, determined to make you enjoy yourself as much as they were and to ram home the joy of the music, the emotion of the love songs and the quirkiness of the Czech Girl and her strange extended family without giving the production a chance to speak for itself.

Daniel Healey plays Guy as a depressed, almost suicidal no-hoper. His girlfriend has left him and gone off to America, he’s living in one room above his father’s Hoover repair shop with no money and no prospects and he’s almost given up trying to get anyone to take an interest in his songs.

Into his life comes Girl (Emma Lucia)—a feisty, straight-talking Czech émigré whose own partner has abandoned her and who is raising her daughter in a communal house with some very odd East European characters, including her mother.

She is also a musician, although poverty means her only access to a piano is in the music shop of old rocker Billy—a very amusing portrayal by Sean Kingsley—so she sees in our hero the potential that can be unlocked with a little love and support. She raises the money to help him make a demo CD and, while he falls in love with her, she tries to put him on the road that will take him to New York to seek his fortune and get back with the ex-girlfriend.

A couple of the songs won Grammys the first time around—and certainly "Falling Slowly" and the opening number "Leaving" are lovely ballads. Unfortunately, all the others sound the same, after a while very much blending into one, and each although starting off quite delicate is made more strident by the inclusion of the musical chorus. The best songs are the understated ones accompanied by just some of the musicians, or even sung a cappella.

The bar is never used to its full advantage—and for such a wonderful set that’s a shame. A lot of the scenes are in apartments or Guy’s room and for this furniture is wheeled on and off constantly.

Having said that, the script is well written and very humorous in parts, especially the wordplay between Guy and the Girl. Their story is told over five days, so character development is fairly limited and somewhat truncated. Nevertheless, theirs are the most developed characters, the others used almost as punctuation on the journey.

It’s a production with a lot of enthusiasm and vibrancy which wears its heart on its sleeve and begs to be liked.

The press night audience seemed to really enjoy it so if your bag is syrupy love stories with plenty of music thrown in and you have a soft spot for the Irish blarney then this is definately for you.

But if you like a bit more meaningful drama and are not really into full-blown musicals, I’d give this on a miss.

Suzanne Hawkes