It’s been almost ten years since Once debuted in America, and since then the musical has celebrated success on both sides of the pond, with acclaimed runs on Broadway and in London’s West End. The show, which is based on the motion picture by John Carney, has embarked on a second UK tour and this week returns to Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre hoping to emulate its 2018 success.
With a book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once is a story of boy meets girl – or rather, guy meets girl – but with a difference. Guy (Daniel Healey) is an Irish busker and hoover repairman who lives with his father following his mother’s recent death. But after his girlfriend left him for a new life in New York, he’s nursing a broken heart and has decided to give up on music. That is until he meets Girl (Emma Lucia), an enthusiastic Czech woman and single mother who hears him perform and helps to transform his life. Over the course of five days the two bond over a mutual love of music, and as Girl encourages Guy to record his music and go in search of his true love, they grow closer and feelings develop. But will they live happily ever after?
Edna Walsh’s book is a beautiful and moving tale of loss and love between two people from different backgrounds. There are one or two stereotypical moments however, which seem to be heightened given the lack of Czech and Irish cast members, and as a result a few scenes feel a little over the top. Thankfully elsewhere there’s a lot of warmth and humour in the show, although it is the more touching moments that really make an impact. But what really makes this show stand out is the quality of the music. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s score mixes Irish and Czech influences, with stomping Celtic tunes, spirited folk songs such as ‘Ej Pada Pada Rosicka’, and touching ballads, including the Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’. Francesca Jayne’s choreography works well with the music, notably during ‘If You Want Me’, and is subtle enough to allow the songs to take centre stage. Each song is brought to life by the ultra-talented actor-musicians playing everything from accordions and acoustic guitars to fiddles and cellos.
Daniel Healey and Emma Lucia are a great double act, their chemistry evident right from the start, and their voices complement one another perfectly. Healey quickly gets into his stride, wowing with his raw, powerful voice; while Lucia puts her heart into her performance, her piano playing equally as impressive as her singing. The humour comes courtesy of Dan Bottomley as music shop owner Billy, Lloyd Gorman who has a hilarious and eye-opening scene in the second act that you won’t forget in a hurry and Samuel Martin, who puts in a scene-stealing performance as the Bank Manager, his rendition of ‘Abandoned in Brandon’ a touch of brilliance.
Director Peter Rowe is known for his work with actor-musicians and his polished direction results in a real ensemble effort, with cast members on stage throughout even when they’re not involved in scenes, watching the action and occasionally reacting to the action playing out in front of them. It’s easy to forgive one or two accent slips when the quality of the performances is generally very high. Like Come From Away, it’s when the entire cast unite to perform that the magic really happens. Their rendition of ‘Gold’ in particular was spine- tingling, while the final reprise of ‘Falling Slowly’ leaves you reaching for the tissues.
Libby Watson’s set design makes great use of the New Wolsey’s space, the stage transformed into a bustling Irish pub, and instantly welcoming – the instant you set foot inside the theatre you feel as though you’ve entered a lock-in with a group of old friends, particularly as the music starts up before the show starts. As the action moves on to a bedroom, a shop, bank and even a recording studio, items of items of furniture are quickly wheeled on to signify these changes, while there’s a particularly lovely surprise in the second act, which also showcases Mark Dymock’s lighting choices.
Once is not just your average love story. It’s a charming production with a touching tale and exquisite music that’s sure to capture your heart – it’s guaranteed to be a show you’ll want to see more than once.
Once runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until 29 February before continuing on its UK tour.
Photo credit: Mark Senior