Tag Archives: west end

Review: Once

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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.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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!

 

 

Book of Mormon…? Book of AWESOME, more like.

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I know it’s been said many times before, but this really is a great musical. Irreverant, sweet, funny and imaginative, with great songs and great staging. I mean, you couldn’t really ask for much more.

I bought the tickets months ago and was super excited, having seen posters declaring rave reviews all over London. I was determined to read / watch / listen to as little of the show as possible before I saw it – in my experience, musicals are always better if you see them for the first time live and with no (or as few as possible) preconceptions about the show – this was certainly the case with Matilda, Wicked, and Avenue Q. But when the designated evening finally rolled around, I was exhausted and grumpy, in the middle of a stressful final week of my PGCE placement, and really didn’t feel in the mood to watch a show full of crude, insensitive jokes about religion and sexuality. I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

From the very first moment, however, I was captivated. The opening number – “hello”, a song about evangelists going to door to door, something most of us have experienced from the other side of the door – was a catchy, well written tune, cleverly choreographed and with great charm. And there wasn’t a single curse word or crude joke! This was most definitely not what i was expecting of the creators of South Park  – although they made up for it later with ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ [F*** You, God] which caused me a serious moral conundrum that went something like this: “Should i clap? Am i allowed to clap? What would my dad think?! Aargh. It was a really good song, I really want to clap, but if i clap this song will i go straight to hell? Darn that Christian upbringing! Darn those excellent songwriters!”

The laughs were frequent, and I can’t praise the writing enough – it was intelligent and witty, not just close to the bone. Although the Mormon religion is obviously the main focus, the derision was indiscriminate, with jokes about everything from AIDs to Disneyland, and that made the show a lot easier to enjoy – there was no uncomfortable “us and them” feeling to it. I was impressed at how well researched a lot of the writing was: from Mormon undergarments, to the history and geography of the Mormon church, it was all there. I actually learned a lot about Mormonism just from watching the show. For example, did you know that Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri? One to make a note of for any future pub quiz questions…

Alongside the comedy, though, there was a surprising depth to The Book of Mormon. There’re the obvious themes about religion and people blindly following faith, but I wasn’t prepared for how much focus there would be on the plight of the Ugandan villagers. There are a couple of genuinely shocking moments of violence, and the writers didn’t shy away (of course!) from more hard-hitting and controversial topics such as AIDs, female mutilation and civil war. In fact, as a tool against such violence and oppression, the over-arching moral of this musical is that religion can be a source of hope, and give people the strength to live their lives in difficult circumstances. Yes, it can seem to make no sense, cause conflict, be based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, and you might not want to take some of the stories too literally… But it does have it’s strengths. And if it’s giving people the strength to stand up to oppressors, it can’t be all bad.

…Although you should probably bear in mind that it’s a musical. It pretty much has to have a happy ending. It’s not Opera, y’know…

That poster I saw as I travelled down an escalator at Vauxhall tube station sums it up pretty nicely: “I loved this show. It’s completely bonkers. It has a beautiful heart.”

Actually, maybe i should have just posted that quote and saved you all the bother of reading this essay. Soz.

The Book of Mormon (musical)

The Book of Mormon (musical) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)