by Laura Kressly
Made for a mere €112,000, Once is an award-winning, hit indie film. It’s easy to see why in the stage adaptation that has been running regularly around the world since 2011. The melancholic, Irish music performed by actor-musicians and the almost-love story set this show apart from the bold, brash showiness of musicals that stick more closely to traditional forms. It’s appeal lies in the story’s delicate balance of tapping into that tender part of the heart that sadly knows happily-ever-afters aren’t real, and the unrequited celebration of music’s power to bring people together.
Set in Dublin, we see a heartbroken Irish man and a hopeful but abandoned Czech woman meet on the street. They are both musicians, and immediately bond over through their respective grief and shared passions. During the next five days, their friendship intensifies along with their resolve to immortalise their music as a demo.
This love letter to the city and the power of Irish culture is both delicate and voracious. The touring production brims with all the joy and wistfulness of the West End run several years ago. The ensemble is energetic and engaging, full of life and serve the story. There is no doubt they fill the space with ease with their infectious verve. The minimal choreography is sharp, and the set design – the inside of a pub – is convincingly Irish.
There are a couple of worrying shortcomings, however. Primarily, casting British performers betrays a disregard for the importance of representation. There are no Czech – or even Eastern European – actors in the large ensemble, and going off of the information in the programme, I suspect there are only two Irish actors. The Boy, a tortured, local musician, is played by Scottish actor and musician Daniel Healy. The Girl, a young mother from the Czech Republic, is taken on by Emma Lucia, from Durham. Though both are excellent singers and embody the emotional landscape of their characters, neither represent the people who are the centre of this wonderful tale. There is only so much truth that native actors can convey about the migrant experience.
This may be the reason behind some scenes that are eggy with stereotypical depictions of Irish and Czech people, another of this tour’s faults. Though some of that is down to the writing, the portrayal of these characters occasionally descends into something out of a Carry On film. It’s teeth-clenchingly grim on a stage in a country that is so keen to vilify people from Ireland and Eastern Europe.
There is so much great stuff in the musical and this particular incarnation of it, but with Brexit coming in a matter of weeks, it’s also an insult to the European artists fighting to continue living and working in the UK to not cast them in this musical.
Once runs through 11 January, then tours nationally.
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