Once, The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/York
THREE weeks into rehearsals at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End, the media were invited to a press day where director Peter Rowe and musical supervisor Ben Goddard put their 16-strong cast through their paces in exhilarating fashion.
Sometimes you can feel the magic in the air as early as that, sensing the chemistry between leads Daniel Healy and Emma Lucia and the bonding of the company of actor-musicians as they turned a rehearsal room into an Irish pub full of lusty singing and joyful playing.
You just knew the show was going to be good, but, glory be, it is even better than that. Having cherished John Carney’s micro-budgeted cult romantic Irish film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova since 2007, yet aware that many still don’t know that charming movie, save maybe for its multi-award-winning song Falling Slowly, your reviewer urges you to fall immediately for this touring musical version. No time for slowness here.
Broadway, the West End and Dublin have all had a go at doing Once The Musical. Rowe and regular musical partner Goddard first united Scotsman Healy and Durham-born Lucia as Guy and Girl, jilted Dublin busker/vacuum cleaner repairman and immigrant Czech odd-jobs worker and musician, for shows in Ipswich and Hornchurch in 2018, and now they have found the perfect format for a touring version.
Designed by Libby Watson, the setting is an Irish pub, crammed with pictures and chattering life, where the cast rally the audience with songs familiar from The Pogues, Chieftains and Dubliners to set the Dublin craic.
Scenes are played out against this backdrop, the musicians fading in and out of scenes, sometimes acting like a Greek chorus as they lean in, in response to what is unfolding between Healy’s Guy and Lucia’s Girl.
They are first encountered as she watches him busking in the chill streets, singing to his ex, now moved to New York, but still the subject of each pained song, although he is on the cusp of giving up on those songs too.
Girl is open, frank, funny for being so serious; Guy is taciturn, guarded, but the shared love of music speaks volumes and she needs her vacuum cleaner mending. It duly arrives as if out of thin air, shooting across the stage in one of the show’s many humorous moments.
Big-hitting Falling Slowly is not held back. Instead, it forms their first song together in Billy’s unruly music shop, tentative at first as she picks out the piano lines, to accompany his singing, then joining in, their voices entwining and overlapping beautifully. Gradually, one by one, the musicians join in too: fiddle, guitars, mandolin, cello, squeezebox and more, in union, in sympathy.
Here, in a nutshell, is why Once works wonders as a musical, being as much a celebration of the power of music in Dublin’s fair city as a love story of ebb and flow, rise and fall, surprise and revelation, over five all too short days.
The path of love is never smooth, as we all know, but for those who have never seen Once, it would be wrong to issue spoiler alerts of what ensues. Except to say, on the way home you will want to discuss how the open-ended story might progress, if you have any romantic bones in your body!
Healy and Lucia are terrific leads: who would not fall for either of them?! His Guy is generous, kind, a blue-eyed soul man of song and acoustic guitar playing; her Girl, his new Czech mate, is feisty, fearless in the face of adversity in her adopted city, and plays the piano exquisitely too.
Dan Bottomley’s hapless, bandy-legged, hopelessly romantic, fiery Billy pickpockets plenty of scenes and Ellen Chivers, last seen in York last summer in the Theatre Royal’s Swallows & Amazons, is even better as wild-spirited Czech Reza.
From Enda Walsh’s witty, whimsical, love-struck script to Hansard and Irglova’s impassioned songs, you must see Once, a wonderful show that blows away weeks of panto wars and politics, to herald a new year of theatre in York. In fact, it is so enjoyable, you could go not once, but twice…and make sure to arrive early to see York buskers Rachel Makena, Florence Taylor, Owen Gibson and Peter Wookie taking turns pre-show and in the interval in the foyer bar.