26 June 2014
London

In which I see the charming and quietly heartbreaking Once: the Musical and weep like a child for the past. 

Tonight I saw Once, the musical version of an independent Irish film from a few years ago. It’s been on my to-go-to list for over a year, but hasn’t felt pressing or urgent enough to make time for, especially as it looks to keep playing to full houses for a while yet. The ticket was a birthday present from MJ, who surprises me once a year with something fabulous. Last year it was Matilda, a musical I’m still utterly in love with.

Once is playing at the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road – a theatre I’ve never been to before, as the 20 year long residency of the musical Blood Brothers has only recently vacated. It’s a lovely little theatre with a small curved stage, perfect for this kind of intimate mood piece. The stage is dressed as an Irish pub, with wood veneer panelling and smoking mirrors lining the walls. Audience members are invited up on stage to buy a drink and listen to the cast, who are already onstage jamming merrily away.

Once is a gorgeous piece of work, decidedly unstarry for a West End musical, and disarming in its simplicity. An Irish boy meets a Czech girl in Dublin, make music together and fall in love over the course of a week. It’s underplayed throughout – perhaps a bit too underplayed, especially the lead female, who wasn’t quite starry enough – with all the emotion seeping into the music.

And what music it is! I tend to hover on a knife-edge with Irish folk. If you’re not on your guard, it can tip into winsome or shampoo commercial at a moment’s notice. The score of Once (much of it written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the film) was pitched just perfectly, carrying emotional sincerity and grace without becoming overly sentimental. There were a few weak moments – the story is fairly slight, and dependent on a host of zany stock characters with “amusing” Czech accents to bring in the laughs. To its credit, it’s played good-naturedly and without a hint of cynicism, which becomes impossible to resist.

The charms of the show are helped enormously by the talented cast, who double as musicians, playing guitars, piano, mandolins and piano-accordions as well as singing throughout. It looks effortless, but it’s the equivalent of a marathon in energy and concentration for each of them. The chief sound engineer, who’s a friend of MJ, told us in the interval that there was a half hour delay in the matinee show due to a power cut, leaving the poor cast with less than two hours to recover before going back on stage for the evening show. Not that you could tell it from their performances, which were energetic, full-bodied and filled with the enthusiasm of wide-eyed kids spontaneously putting on a show.

I’d known from reading earlier reviews that Once doesn’t end happily – not unusual for an independent Irish film but most unusual for a West End musical. The emotional impact of the love story creeps up on you slowly, while you’re only half-looking. By the end, your heart has been softly and exquisitely trampled.

As I listened to the lovers singing a refrain of Falling Slowly, the show’s signature song, my mind went on a Proustian flight of fancy back to 1999, and my eight day love affair with D. He was a lovely man, who I met just as I was about to leave my university town and go to the Big Smoke for my first proper job. It was the first time I’d been in love where I both knew and felt that it was reciprocated, and the thrill of our happiness was coloured – and possibly sustained – by the knowledge that it would end. We tried to keep things going for a year or so after I left. Like most long-distance relationships, it was frustrating and unsatisfactory, creating too much expectation on the few times we were together, and too much unhappiness in the long months when we weren’t. Eventually it fractured apart. There were a few horrible arguments, and a long period of hurt silence for a year or so before we found a way to speak to each other again.

As if by magic, the song in Once transported me back in time, past all the unhappiness and squabbling and regrets, and into those first few days – heady, joyful, sleepless, giggling and suffused with the cool plangent colours of early autumn. I remembered waking in D’s bed in the early morning at his flat in the hilly outer suburbs. I left him sleeping as I crept through the house, then sat on the front doorstep and looked at the sunrise. I shivered slightly with the cold, thinking about what would come next – the uncertainty of the future and the certainty of the unhappiness we were both about to feel. I still remember it now, as I did then, not as the moment when I felt most happy, but when I felt the most fully alive.

Once isn’t the most sophisticated take on human relationships, but it speaks to anyone who’s struggled unsuccessfully to hold onto new love in all its fragility, or who’s wondered afterwards about the one who got away. I was happy to see that the audience felt the same as I did, rising to give the cast a well-deserved standing ovation, before we scraped ourselves off the floor and headed out into the rainy summer night to drown our sorrows.

How extraordinary music is, with its ability to transport us immediately back in time. I’m reminded of DH Lawrence’s beautiful poem Piano, which has been recently set to music by singer Nick Mulvey in his song Cucurucu:

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

 

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