Having been one of the approximately 6 people who saw the film version of Once upon it’s release in 2007 [other than film critics], I was fairly sceptical when I found out they’d made a musical version of it. The film is brilliant, but pretty much built on understatement, subtle changes in facial expression and small, intimate moments – I couldn’t understand how they could possibly transfer this into the format of a traditional musical. For that very reason, this review is pretty late to the party – Once has been on the West End now for over a year – but on hearing good things from friends and reviewers I decided to give it a go.
Overall, I’m still not completely convinced by the musical version of Once. Although it was a sensitive adaptation with a lot of great elements, I felt that it didn’t quite capture the mood of the film well enough to do it justice. The script was clever, but subtleties don’t work so well in a musical and on a lot of occasions I felt the female lead was overacting. I have no doubt that this was necessary in order for her to reach those at the very back of the audience, but for those of us in the stalls it seemed a bit hammed up for such a low key production. I suppose what I’m really saying here is that the show would probably be better in much smaller venue where the actors wouldn’t have to try so hard to convey emotions.
Undoubtedly, the main thing this musical has going for it is cracking songs – they’re all written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the original film, and ‘Falling Slowly’ even won Best Song at the 2007 Oscars – deservedly so. Well written, memorable and heartfelt, the songs of Once form the basis of the plot as well as the emotional heart of the musical, and even better is that they aren’t the usual cheesy belters you find in musicals. Instead, they offer something a bit different – think guitars rather than synths – which is in keeping with the mood of the show as a whole.
Along with the songs themselves, the way the music is ‘organised’ in this musical is brilliant. All of the musicians are on stage throughout the whole show, and between them form the chorus and secondary characters as well as providing scene changes, props and incidental music. Their ability to switch between these multiple roles with complete fluidity is really quite impressive, and at one point there was even a man dancing with a cello strapped to his chest, which is an automatic win in my book.
That brings me nicely to one of the things about this musical that I didn’t enjoy so much – the weird interpretive-dance-style choreography. This isn’t the kind of show that really needs dancing at all, being pretty low key with mostly folk rock / indie musical numbers, but it felt like they’d been obliged to find a way to squeeze some in, resulting in some slightly bizarre hand-wavy moments a la Kate Bush. Despite being used sparingly, this did occasionally ruin a poignant musical moment as I tried not to giggle at (for example) the bank clerk’s slightly camp swirly hand motions, which I’m sure the show could have coped perfectly well without.
Another aspect of the show that was slightly clunky was the use of accents. A Czech accent is very difficult to do, and there were a fair amount of moments when the lead female’s accent just wasn’t strong enough to be convincing, either sounding Russian or vaguely American. What was a really nifty trick, however, was the use of scrolling text on a screen along the top of the bar, which displayed the Czech translation whenever the foreign characters were conversing amongst themselves on stage. This was a great way of reminding the audience (alongside the accents, of course) that they were only speaking in English for the sake of the English-speaking audience, without being too much of a distraction from the plot.
Despite it’s flaws, Once is definitely up there with some of the best of the West End at the moment. It’s unique, well written, with a great soundtrack and an array of interesting characters. Add to that some cracking pre-show entertainment, and you can’t go wrong – just don’t watch the film before you go!