Once, Phoenix Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Once is a quiet revelation of a film. Running at a brisk 86 minutes, it is a shimmering sliver of a thing, played out in muted, almost documentary style naturalism. While very little happens and even less is said, it quickly but gently grasps at the emotions, stubbornly refusing to let go.

Replicating this subdued and intimate experience on a big proscenium arch stage would be an impossible, thankless task, and it is one that adapters John Tiffany and Enda Walsh have wisely avoided. Instead, delicate watercolours are traded in for broader, brighter brushstrokes, in a production that adds plenty of colour – perhaps too much – to John Carney’s film. Staged entirely in a pub, this bittersweet tale is subjected to lively and occasionally raucous storytelling, helped along by a skilled chorus of actor-musicians.

The plot is simple enough. A Guy and Girl – we never learn their names – meet on the streets of Dublin. He’s a busker and hoover repair man on the point of giving up his music, while she’s a Czech immigrant who plays a mean tune on the piano. In exchange for fixing her broken vacuum cleaner, the Girl prevents the Guy from throwing in the towel, injecting both his music and his life with fresh energy. Inevitably, the two begin to fall for one another, in spite of the Guy’s unfinished business with an ex-girlfriend in New York and the Girl’s daughter and absent husband. In other words, it’s complicated.

While Markéta Irglová in the film was a quietly enigmatic, inscrutable figure, Walsh’s book has added new, vivid lines to the female character, transforming her into the driving motor of the story. Zrinka Cvitešić is an electric presence, charging the Girl with an overflowing, infectious energy, but this new characterisation has more than a touch of Manic Pixie Dream Girl about it. Cvitešić is the kind of kooky romantic interest that has become a Hollywood staple: mysterious, intelligent, daydreamy, and ultimately inserted to enable the male lead to discover his purpose in life. This now feels less like their story, and more like his.

This irritating niggle aside, Tiffany and Walsh’s adaptation makes clever, playful use of the conventions of the stage. The Irish pub, a setting that is also proving effective down the road in The Weir, creates an instantly convivial environment, even inviting audience members on stage with the musicians for a pre-show pint. Smartly embracing the simplicity of the storytelling form, it never pretends that it is anything other than theatre, having fun with the juggling of basic props to transport us from scene to scene. Steven Hoggett’s movement, meanwhile, explores a tender physical language that begins to communicate some of the many things left unsaid in the film, though Walsh’s script still succumbs to the urge to spell things out more explicitly than the quietly reserved original.

One of the main attractions of this particular incarnation of the show is Arthur Darvill, of Doctor Who fame, who has taken over the role of the Guy after a stint in the Broadway production. He makes an expressively awkward male lead, hands frequently stuffed in pockets, packing layers of meaning into a single shrug of the shoulders. And there’s no doubt he can sing, belting out the opening number with the kind of furious intent that instantly dispels any reservations.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Oscar-winning music translates comfortably onto the stage, with some charming, unobtrusive added orchestrations by Martin Lowe. It is still the poignant and rousing “Falling Slowly” that dominates the score, with many of the other folksy, Mumford and Sons-esque tunes fading quickly from the memory. There is a fresh musical highlight, however, in the gorgeous a capella rendering of “Gold”, which weaves a haunting choral tapestry in the second half. As in the film, it is through the music that emotion is most simply and powerfully communicated, with little need for added frills.

And it is the few frills and flourishes that have been added which, for me, let the piece down a little. The need to flesh out the supporting characters is justified enough, but the humorous edges added by Walsh have a tendency to feel forced, while joviality occasionally threatens to smother emotion. It’s hard to protest against Once‘s intoxicating charm, but I could have done with a little more of the film’s sighing wistfulness.

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