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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Once
Phoenix Theatre 2013 - 2015

From Broadway, trailing loads of Tony awards, comes this gentle, low-key musical based on a 2006 film. It is so very unspectacular that what keeps it from disappearing is lashings and lashings of Irishness, but whether London will find that as exotic and colourful as New York did is not certain.

A Dublin street musician is pining for his girlfriend in New York and about to give up writing and playing music when he meets an unconventional Czech woman, who urges, cajoles and bullies him into continuing and even recording some of his songs. A will they-won't they attraction develops between them but, in keeping with the general autumnal tone of the show, it is not allowed to develop very far.

In what is rapidly becoming the standard treatment of small-scale musicals, director John Tiffany has the performers doubling as the band, carrying their instruments around and playing them in and out of character, and in this case, since they're all supposed to be amateur musicians, it actually makes sense. 

The fun of the show actually begins early as audience members are invited onstage to buy drinks at the pub that is the main setting, and the musicians work up a jolly ceilidh. 

But in fact things are never that lively again, as the rest of the songs, by Glen Hansard and Markta Irglov but all presented as the hero's compositions, tend toward the melancholy. Worse, they all follow the same pattern, starting quietly and building to a shouted climax, so they all begin to sound alike. 

The best, in that there is something fun to watch as well as listen to, are those that John Tiffany and movement director Steven Hoggett accompany with energetic or poetically evocative dances. 

Declan Bennett is rather bland as the main character, though Zrinka Cvitešić brings a nicely enigmatic sexiness to the role of the girl. 

I suspect that the best way to enjoy Once, assuming your musical tastes run to faux Irish folk music, is not to pay much attention to the plot and just enjoy the songs and dances. If such music is not particularly to your taste, there's not much here to attract you.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Once - Phoenix Theatre 2013  

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