Theatre Review of Once, the Musical by Sheena Lambert | Book Reviews | Stage | Stage & Screen Reviews

By Sheena Lambert

Review of Once, the Musical for by Sheena Lambert

This is, and so even the theatre reviews generally focus on the writing side of things, but an intelligent woman once told me that writers must never forget that we are first and foremost in the entertainment business. So, in the interest of clarity and full disclosure etc, I will state up front: from an entertainment point of view, Once the Musical, currently playing at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, is AWESOME.

5 out of 5 stars brilliant.

It was simply one of the most entertaining nights I have spent in a theatre in a while. Part of the fantastic experience was down to the writing, certainly, but overall it is the absolute quality of the acting/musicianship on stage that makes this such a stand-out show. The cast of twelve actor/musicians are simply exemplary. I have to admit, however, that it was the same acting/musicianship that nearly had me running in horror from the theatre before the show properly began.

Let me explain: a quirk of Once the Musical is that the on-stage bar is a working bar, open to the audience before the show begins. Fair enough. And in the bar, the cast stand around, playing their instruments in what any Irish person can see is a cringe-worthy attempt at a pub trad session. No real traditional Irish musicians in the history of traditional Irish musicians have ever grinned and winked at each other like the cast were grinning and winking at each other as they pranced around in a circle – these guys made Sharon Shannon look dour. Like any true Dub, I would rather have gouged my eyes out with a fiddle bow than stand up there pretending to be a part of it, but hey, so far so acceptable-insofar-as-we-are-courting-American-tourists.

The true horror came as time is politely called on the audience and the on-stage drinkers are ushered to their seats, when the cast play a few tunes as a neat bridge between the trad session and the start of the show proper, and for a second I thought I had turned up for the wrong show. This is where I almost walked out. Once the musical premiered in New York, and perhaps it was a remnant from its first run there, but this (thankfully short) part of the evening was what I imagine “Celtic Woman – the Grunge Years” tour would be like. Its lucky saving grace was again the quality of the musicianship and thankfully, as soon as the story begins with Guy being “discovered” by Girl, an end is put to the ridiculous grimacing and grinning that surely even the Americans could see through by now.

But from that moment on, there is not a second of wasted time or space on stage. The singing, the songs, the variety of instruments and the quality with which they are played, not to mention the wonderful staging and set design, the direction, the lighting and the choreography (which was so beautiful and clever and subtle and tear-inducing that it made the pre-show prancing all the more ridiculously garish) were all simply perfectly executed. As a serious fan of musicals (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Chicago and West Side Story since you ask, although Once could very well be sneaking into my top 4) I was enthralled, delighted, touched, exhilarated.

Entertained, with a capital E.

The two principal characters, Guy (Brian Gilligan) and Girl (Niamh Perry), were exceptional, but to single them out over the rest of the cast would be unfair. Each cast member, from the fabulous violinists to the sensational percussionist to the sexually repressed bank manager from Cork (see it and you’ll understand), was as good as the next. There was simply not one weak link on-stage. I’m a little emotional writing about it, because it was emotional experiencing it. I’ve seen every recent touring production of every big West End musical at our new Bord Gais theatre and felt almost every time like the cast were just turning up for work; just phoning it in, thinking about the post-show drinks party all the time they were on stage. Not so at the Olympia Theatre on Wednesday night. Not so with the cast of Once.

So what about the writing? Well it’s almost impossible to discuss the book (libretto and non-singing parts) of this musical as written by Enda Walsh without taking the original screenplay on which it is based into consideration. Written by John Carney (former bass player with The Frames and writer of hit movie Sing Street) the movie Once was a great success when it came out in 2007. It was a refreshing antithesis of the usual Hollywood movie, depicting as it did a real bloke who didn’t know what he were doing most of the time, just like most blokes in the real world don’t know what they are doing most of the time (or at least until their mother/wife/girlfriend tells them). But where the movie was quiet, and even a little slow at times, this could not be said of the musical. The story is the same, but the wonderfully dynamic way is which it is told, with minimal (although consistently hilarious) dialogue and maximum music brings the whole piece to life, raising it to a level arguably never reached by the film version. It gives cause to muse, how some stories suit particular formats better than others. It’s a phenomenon I have encountered myself in my own writing – how a piece you might write as a short story or a book might be better told on stage or screen? Once is all about music, and putting the music front and centre – as is possible on a live stage with exceptionally talented musicians such as those in this Dublin production – seemed to breathe vigour into the story that was arguably lacking in the screenplay.

It’s a useful lesson for all writers, and a trick for really knowing your story. How would your play work as a short story? How would your novel play out as a film script? Even working on an outline of a different format might help you get to the essence of your idea, and help you through some sticky writing days, which even the likes of Enda Walsh and John Carney must encounter sometimes.

So writers, as an exercise, watch Once the movie, and then go to Once the Musical and compare the two.

Even if you learn nothing, you’ll experience an absolutely great night’s entertainment.

For more info and booking details, click here!

(c) Sheena Lambert


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