In 2006, Once - a little unassuming Irish film, directed and written by John Carney and starring musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová - won over everyone’s hearts and quickly established a name for itself as one of “the most delicate invisible love stories,” to quote Irish playwright Enda Walsh. As a film-musical, it seemed to go against the stereotype of big numbers, big names and big emotions, and for aficionados of the musical genre, it was perhaps only a matter of time before it was in turn translated into a stage musical.
Developed by the American Repertory Theatre, and originally produced Off-Broadway in 2011, it soon found itself on Broadway. Produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company and John Frost in its Australian premiere at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, Once is a beautiful tender love story, and the perfect antidote to the big-budget musical juggernauts which dominate Broadway and the commercial musical scene.
Staged on Bob Crowley’s intimate and deceptively simple set, it is perhaps one of the most welcoming and selfless evocations of an Irish pub outside of being in one. A simple curved wall arcs across the stage, with two doors with frosted glass, a working bar, chairs and stools along the walls. Its walls are festooned with mirrors, their edges blurred and marked with age, while little lamps are spread around at intervals, their light diffracting and reflecting, little glimpses here and there, an enchanting beguiling depth of spirit and character, a generosity of purpose and self. The dozen strong cast remain on stage throughout, sharing the show, sharing the story, and it is a great Irish ceilidh, a grand celebration of stories, music, drink, culture, love, Life and the grand fact of being alive.
It is a generous and selfless show, a communal show; before it starts, as the cast gather on stage to jam and play, the audience is invited to get a drink from the on-stage bar and join them. It’s a simple gesture, and a little bit of madness (and genius) from the producers and creators, but it is this very openness and generosity which exudes out through the theatre for the next two-and-a-half hours that makes Once work as well as it does.
The production is also characterised by a fluidity of movement, with no real distinctions between songs and scenes, the two evolving out of each other, moments blending into each other, everything kept moving by the presence and rhythm of music. there are some gorgeous movement pieces here, almost ballet-like in their grace and poise, even when they are carrying tables or manoeuvering pianos, and although it is heightened - even though it all exists in the hyper-aware form of the stage-musical - every movement and/or extended sequence is grounded in a real movement, a very tangible human-sized physical and emotional reaction to music.
To Once’s credit, and to that of its creators - Enda Walsh (book), Hansard and Irglova (music & lyrics), director John Tiffany among others - there are no ‘big musical numbers’ in the show, unless you count the Academy Award-winning song ‘Falling Slowly’ from the film. While the story is about (a) Guy and (a) Girl - how they discover each other through music, and how their relationship grows and strengthens because of it - there are no real lead roles, no character or actor is more important that any of the others; in fact, there is nothing fancy or obtrusive about Once at all; it is just a very human musical, a very human piece of theatre, and it is all the stronger and more remarkable for being so.
The cast here are all splendid, a true ensemble; none overshadowing or stealing the light from any other, though they each have their moment. Doubling as actors and musicians adds an extra layer of emotional honesty to the production, and means there is a real connection between them, the music, the story and us, the audience; that no energy is lost in the Princess Theatre. As Enda Walsh says in the program, “the music [is] central to their storytelling.” When not in-character as a named part, each actor is still in-character as a member of the musical community of the production; in a sense, each actor plays two roles - their role as a musician, and their role as an actor-singer.
As Guy, British actor Tom Parsons brings a gangly awkwardness to his role, a different kind of charm to what we know from the film. He is perhaps shyer, more reserved; up there on the stage, there really is nowhere to hide, but he does hide in a way, behind his guitar, his music, inside his songs, and it takes Girl’s attention, care and love to coax him out of it, warm him up and let the music flow through him. Through us. Madeleine Jones’ Girl is perhaps more direct than in the film, perhaps cheekier, more fiery, but no less loveable. Her story is one of hardship and struggle, but through her moments with her daughter Ivanka, with her family of Czech friends, with her moments alone with Guy, we see her thawing out, becoming more open to feeling, being, existing in the moment. Girl is in many ways the catalyst for change in each of the characters, from Guy to Da, Eamon, Billy, the Bank Manager, Andrej.
There is nothing big or complicated about Once, except for its spirit. A “masterclass in understatement,” it allows you to put yourself in the story without effort, allows you to fall headlong into its charm and get caught up in it all. Effervescent but tinged with a tangible melancholy, it is about change, and change affected through music. Once shares Enda Walsh’s trademark emotional robustness: like all his work, it is not sentimental about being emotional; it is moving without being saccharine, affecting without descending into self-parody. As Walsh himself says, “after years of creating much more complex and certainly darker material - I was [calling] out to work on an unashamedly romantic and positive narrative.”
Like all good theatre, something is created out of nothing. People’s potential is affirmed, and community is embraced. “Bittersweet - a love story unfinished,” Once is serious at the same time as being uplifting; as Girl says, “I am always serious; I am Czech.” Drawing on the same wellspring of emotional rawness and honesty as its filmic progenitor, it is a testament to our generosity and kindness to strangers, the simplicity of music to speak where words cannot, and the power it has to heal. “It’s only people up there with guitars and other instruments, telling and singing their way through an everyday love story,” Walsh says, “but [it’s] without pretention and shot from the heart - it’s become the sweetest strongest thing - it is true ensemble playing. It belongs on stage.”
Theatre playlist: 65. Falling Slowly, Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová