REVIEW: Once, Phoenix Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Once the musical
Once at The Phoenix Theatre

Phoenix Theatre
22 March 2013
5 Stars

I was blown away by the Broadway production of Once, Enda Walsh’s delicate and devastating stage version of John Carney’s film of the same name, with music and lyrics of immense charm, heart and intimacy by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

It was glorious – utterly glorious.

How remarkable then to discover that the West End premiere of the same show, currently playing at the beautiful Phoenix Theatre, is infinitely better, vastly superior to that original, electric Broadway cast?

But there it is.

This version of Once aches with a rawness, a shuddering and tremulous intensity that is almost unbearable to endure, so true, brave and intense are the performances from the entire ensemble.
Declan Bennett is astonishing as the Dublin song-writer whose life has “stopped” because the woman he loves has gone to live in New York. His agonised rendition of Falling Slowly at the opening of this peerless musical drama tears at every fibre of your being; throughout, he is effortlessly charming, lost, in love and in pain, trying to do right and be true to his musical gifts. It is a remarkable performance, poignant and sardonic, a real man trying to deal with life.

Zrinka Cvitesic as the straight-talking Czech musician who sees his heartache and sets out to help him find his musical centre is equally breath-taking, alive and subtle and totally convincing. And she sings – her performance of The Hill in Act Two is an absolute masterclass in telling stories of truth through music. She misses nothing and together she and Bennett are captivating and delicious.

Throughout, the music is served exceptionally well, the haunting tunes soar and pierce the heart.
And although this is a musical with a happy ending, it is also fundamentally shattering, precisely because it holds true to its characters – as nice is different than good, so can happy be the same as impossibly tough and unfair. That’s life.

But, to borrow a notion from Cabaret – here, everything is beautiful.

Every performer, every song, every moment of tension, pathos or unrelenting joy – and all of it shimmering with a musical brilliance that is hypnotic and almost unbelievably elegant and profound.

No one could be unmoved by these performers doing more than justice to this marvellous music. When the grab-bag group of musicians gather to record a song as a favour to Bennett’s lost musician, the power and majesty of the achievement – a startling anthem, When Your Minds Made Up – gobsmacks not just Gareth O’Connor’s wonderfully been-there-done-that Eamonn but every sentient being listening.

Bob Crowley’s set, Martin Lowe’s orchestrations (the actors play the score – wonderfully), Steven Hoggett’s muscular marvellous movement, and John Tiffany’s miraculous direction combine to produce a completely unique musical theatre experience.

There has never been a musical like Once and it is difficult to imagine it ever being better than it is in this production. Seriously – the West End is alight with glorious theatre.

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