Once: The Musical
Phoenix Theatre, London
Starring: Ronan Keating
★★★★ (out of 5)
Anyone who has been in a London Tube station in recent months will have seen the posters announcing that Ronan Keating has joined the cast of Once: The Musical in the capital for 16 weeks.
Keating might not strike those who have seen the film version of Once as the obvious choice to play the role of Guy. While he is sure to attract a percentage of his fanbase to the box office, can a pop singer with little acting experience play a down-on-his-luck songwriter convincingly? Would the conventionally good-looking Keating be able to pull off bedraggled busker? And of course, the biggest question, can Keating sing live?
That last question gets answered in the opening moments when Keating belts out one of the most vocally challenging numbers, Leave, with power and presence. Singing in a slightly exaggerated version of his own Dublin accent, Keating’s voice (often parodied for its nasal qualities) is the best it’s ever been and works in harmony with Jill Winternitz, playing opposite Keating in the role of Girl.
More surprises — not only can Keating sing live, he’s also a decent guitar player and not a bad actor either.
As you might expect, the theatre version is a less subtle affair. While the movie was a masterclass in understatement and leaving things unsaid, the musical is a heartier, more robust story.
Originally written by award-winning Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh, the low-budget movie version — directed by Irishman John Carney and starring The Frames frontman Glen Hansard and the unknown Markéta Irglová — became an unexpected hit. Though based on Dublin’s streets, its themes of love and separation proved universal.
There are some songs from the movie left out of the stage production but Leave, Gold, If You Want Me and When Your Mind’s Made Up are performed brilliantly. The ‘movement’ sections by Steven Hoggett are a mix of contemporary dance and ballet that give performance a dynamic feel while the tea-stained set of mirrors and faded lampshades brings the interior of a cosy Dublin pub to life.
There is also a particularly ingenious bit of lighting when Guy and Girl go to the coast and stand above the set facing out to the ‘sea’ of the audience. Below them, the remnant bodies from the last scene lie still and are covered in fairy lights, thus becoming the distant lights of Dublin city. It’s a ‘how did they think of that?’ moment, one of many gorgeous touches.
Comparisons aside, Once works beautifully as a musical and a dodgy Dublin accent here and there are easily forgiven when you have top-class musicians, a heart-melting story with warmth and wit. The final group performance of the Oscar winning Falling Slowly is rousing and emotive, so much so that the woman sitting next to me seems to have something in her eye, and for a second, I think I have something in mine too.
Once is at Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0JP until March 21, 2015. Performances: Monday – Saturday 7.30pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees 2.30pm. Prices: £72.50 – £19.50. Box office: 0844 871 7629