Review: Once provides a stripped back, passionate and simplistic evening at the Phoenix Theatre

Posted on 18 October 2013

Andrew Tomlins reviews Once at the Phoenix Theatre

Boy meets girls. Will they get together? Think you’ve seen it all before?  Actually, you probably haven’t. Adapted from the low budget, independent Irish film which went on to win an Oscar, Once provides a very different and unique theatrical experience.

If you arrive at the theatre early enough you are invited to buy a drink from the on-stage bar (the only on-stage bar in the West End) while the cast put on a lively, high energy pre-show. Once is a story of friendship and love, the musical follows an Irish busker who earns a living by fixing hoovers and a straight talking Czech single mother. The pair develop a bond through their mutual love of music and together they write songs, but it’s unclear as to where their relationship is leading to.

Once is a very brave new musical. The set stays the same, very few props are used, there are few costume changes and the cast rarely leave the stage. This means the show simply relies on the talent of its cast and the power of its music. In places this works. Once is a show which divides opinions – some think it’s the most beautiful piece of theatre they have ever seen while others simply do not get it. Personally I’m somewhere in the middle.

I adore the simplistic design and that that cast sit around the edge of the stage throughout. There is no orchestra, the cast double up as musicians and when they play together the result is unbelievable. The chemistry and trust between the entire company is out of this world. At a glance Bob Crowley’s design appears simplistic, but is actually very detailed.

The cast is lead by Zrinka Cvitešić (Girl) and Declan Bennett (Guy) who both give very passionate performances. Although I loved their portrayals of the roles, I found the writing frustrating in places and at times I didn’t really care if the pair got together or not. Declan Bennett is an extremely gifted musician. At times he goes full out while he is also not afraid to hold back. The variation provides some very special moments. I love the tone of Zrinka’s voice, it’s not theatrical at all which is very refreshing. She also steals most of the laughs, giving a very comical performance.

The stand-out moment comes towards the start of the show when the leads perform Once’s signature song ‘Fallowing Slowly’, which is also reprised as the musical concludes. The lyrics and instrumentation are absolutely mesmerising and almost put me into some sort of trance. The other stand-out moment is an acapella number performed during the second act which is, without doubt, the most beautiful and calming two minutes of theatre I have ever seen. The gentle choreography is hypnotising.

Not all of the vocal performances were consistently perfect, but in some ways it didn’t really matter because every song is sung from deep within. While some people were left in tears, I do not find Once moving. There is something about the relationship between ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ which I do not find believable; I just didn’t connect with either of the characters. The cast are beyond talented and I love the rawness of the piece. Once is performed with style and we need more shows in the West End like Once taking everything back to basics.  


Reviewed by Andrew Tomlins

Reviewed on Tuesday 15th October 2013
Once is currently booking at the Phoenix Theatre until 31st May 2014.