“It’s only people up there with guitars and other instruments telling and singing their way through an everyday love story.” Playwright Enda Walsh’s understated summation of Once perfectly captures the charming simplicity and honesty of this unpretentious musical at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.
Will leave you with a bouncy comforting glow.
There is no spectacular curtain up to this show. Instead, some ten minutes before the story commences, an ensemble of musicians gathers onstage to sing, play and dance in a traditionally welcoming ceili. The fun melds into the opening sequence as the house lights dim and Guy (Daniel Healy) laments the loss of the woman he loves and who inspired his music. She is now in New York; he in Dublin. Intent on never playing again his mind is changed by the arrival of Girl (Emma Lucia). She needs her vacuum cleaner repaired and that’s what Guy does for a living. Inevitably they are sucked into a relationship that has the required twists and turns of a heart-rending romance worthy of the stage and enough diversions and lively characters to provide opportunities for humour, songs and a light storyline.
The show is directed by Peter Rowe, Artistic Director at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, with whom this is a joint venture. The creative team clearly gelled and the unity of vision they achieved has created a seamless production. Everything moves effortlessly over more than two hours under the musical direction of Ben Goddard and sound designer James Cook. Lively dance and movement sequences from choreographer Francesca Jaynes enhance the Celtic atmosphere. Set and costume design by Libby Watson boldly and warmly creates the Irish context which is enhanced by the ability of lighting designer Mark Dymock to employ comforting mood lighting in the house, bar and home scenes while not flinching from bolder moments of highlighting and dreamy nights under the stars. Scene transitions carried out by the cast shifting the piano, moving the workshop bench and relocating furniture under the auspices of stage manager Alex Reece integrate with the storyline without losing any pace.
Few musicals manage such smooth introductions and exits from dialogue to songs and back again as Once. They are in the script but the multitalented cast facilitates their efficiency. Each member occupies a position in the band, becomes a singer, soloist musician, dancer and actor as occasion demands. In the midst of the ensemble there are opportunities for individuals to shine. Inevitably, Healy and Lucia stand out. He has raw, earthy, almost rasping tones that match his unpolished character, which can nevertheless mellow in matters of the heart. She has an alarming directness and freshness of approach which deals bluntly and logically with situations but again softens once seated on the piano stool or faced with moments of potential romance. Sean Kingsley, as Billy, the shop owner, provides much of the humour, though at times his performance might have been better suited to a pantomime of pirates, such was the excess his fervour. Not so with Samuel Martin, the Bank Manager, who delightfully transforms from capitalist adversary to enthusiastic entrepreneur and Kate Robinson-Stuart as Reza who exudes motherly forthright control of situations.
Once perhaps rates among the lesser-known acclaimed musicals and occupies a niche in terms of the Irish musical heritage on which it draws. This production offers an outstanding opportunity to see a quality production without paying West End prices. It’s a delightful evening out that will leave you with a bouncy comforting glow.