Once's advertising campaign is headed by the word 'unmissable' and after my first visit, I'd certainly be inclined to agree. It's a show that you have to see to decide whether it's for you - it's certainly not your conventional musical - but if you appreciate good story-telling, raw musical talent and live music played right in front of your eyes with incredible harmonies, then you'll probably come away from it with a smile as large as mine.
At the Phoenix Theatre, the theatre-going experience is enhanced at the interval and before the show, as audience members are permitted on-stage to experience the thrill of standing on a West End stage and the Dublin pub setting. It was a fantastic perk of the show and really brings you closer to the heart and soul of the performance, allowing you to actually have a drink exactly where the cast sing and dance just minutes later. The basic set itself is unchanging throughout, only ever modified by furniture shifted around by the cast themselves and the lighting, which allows imagination and scope for different locations away from the pub. But ultimately, the bar is what all the action always comes back to and it's great that one can witness this up close and personal.
As for the show itself? It was so compelling and so beautiful, I don't really know where to start. The ensemble are all ridiculously talented to the extent they all play multiple acoustic instruments and most also know more than one track in the script. It means that the wholesome sound created is simply gorgeous. Particular standouts were Gareth O'Connor as Eamon who had a lovely voice and often took lead guitar (one of my personal highlights of the night was his 'Chandler's Wife', played as part of the pre-show section), Jez Unwin as the Bank Manager who was completely hilarious - his Abandoned in Bandon was just wonderful for all the wrong reasons - and Ryan Fletcher as Svec who was a manic dancer and drummer. I was also particularly impressed by Aidan Kelly who struck just the right balance between comedy, sincerity and volume(!) in his role as the jealous and overstated Billy. But without doubt the best two things about Once are its leads. Both are dream parts for any guy or girl... (see what I did there?)
I'll start with David Hunter, who led the show at this performance in the absence of Declan Bennett. Hunter was engaging from the moment he first opened his mouth, with a lovely vocal tone that shone above all others, almost as if the score had been written just for him. Moreover, his delivery was impeccable with great light and shade; softer moments alongside some really powerful ones - he really knew how to let go with the bigger notes which were spine-tinglingly powerful. The subtle, deadpan comedy written for Guy was impeccably delivered too and his scenes opposite Cvitesic always provided moments of real emotion, happy or sad. I would have liked maybe a little more physicality from his character - I felt he didn't always hold himself particularly well - but that is hardly a slight on a clearly blossoming and well-regarded actor. It was a joy to watch David perform and he will have the chance to make the role his own for a while once current incumbent Arthur Darvill finishes his stint in the show in May.
Now onto his Olivier award-winning partner-in-crime, Zrinka Cvitesic. Let's just say I'm not surprised she won Best Actress in a Musical - I couldn't fault her performance, that came as close to vocal perfection as you'll see. She displayed such raw emotion that ripped into the audience's hearts at every turn and her If You Want Me was hauntingly gorgeous. Again, her line delivery was astonishingly sharp and she produced consistent ripples of laughter throughout an audience that she held in the palm of her hand, particularly effective when Girl is introduced as the straight-talking and blunt foreigner of whom we know nothing at the top of the show. I believe she is only in the role for another three weeks at the time of writing, finishing May 10th, but if you read this and are thinking of going to the show any time soon - make sure you try and catch it before then to witness something very special indeed.
The blend of Hunter and Cvitesic's voices for both versions of Falling Slowly was just divine and I could listen to the pair sing that song for a very long time. The rest of the score is fantastic and very similar to the film; other favourites of mine were Hunter's commanding Say It To Me Now and opening number Leave, along with the beautiful When Your Mind's Made Up that builds wonderfully to feature most of the ensemble. The sound they made is just fantastic and left me wanting a whole lot more.
On reflection, it was a shame I never caught original actor Declan Bennett as Guy, for there were such excellent reviews about him as well - as there are about Arthur Darvill currently - but I am just glad I got to witness this very special show performed in a such a caring and delicate fashion. It was a fantastic night out that provided an emotional roller-coaster ride led by two very special talents and a cracking, slick ensemble performance. Currently booking until June 2015, there is a strong chance I may have gone back Twice (sorry!) by then, and I strongly encourage anyone to give this show a go even if you're skeptical about it, for I've seen it repeatedly labelled rather derogatorily as just a 'play with music'. But if that's true, it's possibly the best play with music I'll ever see.
David Hunter (Guy), Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl), Allison Harding (Baruska), Ryan Fletcher (Svec), Aidan Kelly (Billy), Gareth O'Connor (Eamon), Michael O'Connor (Da), Phoebe Fildes (Ex-Girlfriend), Jos Slovick (Andrej), Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Reza), Jez Unwin (Bank Manager), Alex Turney (Emcee), Ceyda Ali (Ivanka)
Also in the cast were Declan Bennett, Valda Aviks, Emily Beacock, Rosanna Beacock, Jamie Cameron, Honey Joyce, Karina Kleve, Tim Parker, Christina Tedders, Gabriel Vick and Robbie White.