The Phoenix Theatre, London
**** (out of five)
ANY musical that kicks off with an impromptu session and a melodic burst of The Dawning of the Day is likely to be a winner for me.
It’s the first tune I learned to play on the tin whistle, the only one I still remember and one of my favourite songs to listen to when an ol’ sing song kicks up.
It is also the last tune one expects to feature in a sell-out show in London’s west end – but that is the beauty of Once the musical.
The Broadway hit opened in London this week and brings the best of Irish writing, singing, acting and music to the capital, all wrapped up in the Phoenix Theatre and kicked off with a mighty dose of Patrick’s Kavanagh’s suitably atmospheric On Raglan Road….
Everything that follows is a bonus in Once – the first truly Irish musical for the live stage, which has been based on the surprise 2006 hit movie of the same name from filmmaker John Carney.
Adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh, the production brings a new spin on the musical tradition, offering talent over tassels and making no excuses for it.
Rather it offers just one set, no big band and a cast of 13 characters who remain on stage throughout the 16-song, two act show.
Impressively that performing army moves silently in the shadows or musically as extras while each act unravels.
Yet their biggest triumph is in managing to weave the music so seamlessly into the bones of this production that it doesn’t feel like a musical at all, at least not as we know one.
Instead we are bountifully fed a sizeable stage offering through the best of the basics – excellent acting, beautiful music and a classic love story with a modern edge.
But what is key in Walsh’s tale of two culture-crossed lovers in modern Dublin, one Irish, one Czechoslovakian, is the music.
It begins with music, develops because of it and ends, on the obligatory cliff-hanger, with it.
Of course it’s the talent and charisma of the actors who bring that delicate tale, and the notes which carry it, to life and – in my opinion – prove themselves far superior than those we might usually come across within the medium of musical.
Each one is impressive and holds their own on a frankly bustling stage, for they can all act, sing, dance and play an instrument – which is thankful as they spend the best part of three hours doing just that – often all at once.
In that respect the production at times has something of The Commitments about it, but with a more multicultural edge, befitting its modern day Dublin backdrop.
And hopefully this remarkable piece heralds an exciting new direction for the modern musical – one which offers no heirs or graces but relies on honest energy and raw talent.
As with no gimmicks or whistles it’s impossible not to get caught up in the tale, with Once’s sullen romanticism a reminder that while all might not be well with the world we’ll always have love, laughter and music, which can be enjoyed for free regardless of culture, class or language.
But don’t take my word for it, if you do anything this spring go and see this show.
And if you go try to grab a seat in the stalls – where you’ll be invited to grab a drink on stage while the actors put on a pre-show hooley around the piano to wet the whistle before you find your seats.
You’ll be glad you did and you’ll leave with a tap in your foot, a smile on your face and a rekindled appreciation for the craic.
I might even see you there, as for me Once was not enough.