Review: Once – a yearning, joyous musical about love and home

Erin Harrington reviews Once, directed by Melanie Luckman, with musical supervision and direction from Luke Di Somma and Andy Manning, at The Court Theatre, Saturday 19 June 2021.

The musical romantic dramedy Once is a demanding production to programme and stage. This multi-award-winning show, based on John Carney’s celebrated 2006 film, is a funny, sweet and sad love story that plays out over a handful of days. It’s simple in its narrative but complex in its emotional beats. The key challenge is that the dramatic action is interspersed with free-wheeling musical numbers, all performed in full by the 11-strong cast, who between them play (at least) cello, viola, violin, accordion, mandolin, melodica, guitar, bass, percussion – it’s a lot. These numbers range from foot-stomping, rowdy folk music, to achingly lovely close-harmony a capella and solo work on piano and guitar.

Melanie Luckman’s lively, heartfelt production for The Court Theatre meets these challenges and exceeds them, balancing joyous spectacle with delicate closeness. It’s bittersweet and touching, thoroughly deserving of opening night’s standing ovation. As we enter the cast are playing a session on stage; the party’s begun, and as the audience we’re a part of the story.

In contemporary Dublin, an Irish Guy (Cameron Douglas) and an immigrant Czech Girl (Amy Straker) meet on the street. He is busking, angry and broken hearted, and about to give up music. She’s intelligent and witty, with a deadpan sense of dry humour, and she’s taken by his song-writing and his passion. She engineers a way for them to meet again – a rare romance facilitated by a broken hoover – then pushes him to record his music and go chasing after his ex-girlfriend, now living in New York. The pair’s connection is instant, but the relationship can’t seem to take off. This is not least because the Girl, mother to a young girl, still feels an obligation to her estranged husband, who is back home in Europe. It’s a story about longing – about where we make home, with whom, and why.

Girl (Amy Straker) and Guy (Cameron Douglas), Once, The Court Theatre, 2021. Photos by Emma Brittenden Photography

So much that’s been written about this show outlines the Girl’s role as the Guy’s sudden muse, which can be a little #problematic; women are people, not plot devices. Here, I am not sure that that’s fair. Sure, her sudden firecracker appearance gives him a massive kick up his sad sack backside, which re-invigorates his stalled creativity and helps him on his way (although I don’t buy his final choices). But in this production, we see clearly that she gets something perhaps more profound from the encounter: an opportunity to make a choice, a respite from complex adult obligation, and a reminder of what it is to love and to be loved simply and honestly. There’s something perverse in her wish to live vicariously through his pursuit of lost love, while losing love in real time, which I find much more interesting than Guy being roused from his slumber.

Straker and Douglas showcase their range as singers, musicians and actors. I like seeing Straker, who is often cast as someone sweet, in a role that allows her to be layered and a bit prickly. The pair are supported by a terrific ensemble of singing, dancing multi-instrumentalists who play friends, family, and unexpected musical collaborators: Tom Knowles, Ania Upstill, Juliet Reynolds-Midgley, William Duignan, Christopher Alan Moore, Cameron McHugh, Matt Chamberlain, Helen Fahy, and occasionally MD Andy Manning. The stagecraft is excellent, as they stomp, reel, dance on tables swinging their instruments around, and belt out numbers, revelling in the craic. A delightful young performer (on my night, Briar Jarman) ably fills the role of Girl’s daughter Ivonka. It’s obvious that the players are having a ball, and most of the cast are new to the Court’s stage; honestly, it’s refreshing.

The musical direction from Manning and musical supervisor Luke Di Somma is excellent, as is Hilary Moulder’s choreography. This ranges from dynamic, effervescent full-stage numbers to more lyrical contemporary movement that focuses on gesture. I love a beautiful piece, lonely and open, in which three performers, seated alone at small tables, enact gestures and soft caresses with a single hand.

This is also an impressively designed production. The flexible space of the bar, its walls made of grimy windowpanes that filter the shifting light, takes full advantage of the considerable size of the Court’s stage. The tiled floor is gorgeous, and audience members up for some novelty can order drinks on the stage at half time. There’s some practical details too: I love the nooks and crannies in the wings that allow performers to be present on stage, still connected somewhat to the action, while they play and sing in support. The costumes don’t sit within any one time period and everything feels lived in, although this is certainly the cleanest Irish bar I’ve ever been in.

I particularly appreciate the way the sound design and mix, in conjunction with the musical direction and lighting design, pulls us in and out of the action. There’s an interplay between the sweeping and the private. The design becomes richer and more textured as we head further into the heads and hearts of the Guy and the Girl, then pulls out into more naturalistic modes during straight scenes and transitions. It ably enriches the emotional and narrative arcs of the musical sequences, culminating in an affecting final scene that, by then, has earned a heightened emotional register that foregrounds earnestness and vulnerability. There’s lots of sniffs from the audience; it’s deeply satisfying.  

It has a roughly contemporary setting, but Once is steeped in a sepia-toned glow, as if we’re watching the world through the bottom of a glass of honeyed whiskey. I’m often suspicious of the way nostalgia is commercialised, or used as an aesthetic and emotional shorthand; think, for instance, of the manufactured old-timey authenticity of artists Mumford & Sons and their many knock offs. (Google ‘irish pub concept’ if you’d like catalogues of genuine fake Irish stuff for the walls of your authentically non-Irish Irish bar).

Once is rare show that sidesteps this. This partly relates to lauded writer Enda Walsh’s clever script, which knows when and when not to take itself too seriously. But it also remembers that ‘folk’ music is about people, relationships and the creation (and remembrance) of community; note terrific sequences where Czech and Irish folk music intertwine. In avoiding cutesy boy-meets-girl genre beats it embraces the –algia of nostalgia, the ache, braiding hope, yearning and melancholy in a manner that asks us to sit and stay within spaces of tension. The show’s central song – the award-winning “Falling Slowly” – similarly refuses to musically resolve, dancing between the intimate and the anthemic, ultimately leaving us hanging. Altogether, it packs a significant emotional punch.  

I’m not sure if it’s rude to say overtly that over recent years the Court’s offerings have been quite uneven, swinging from the sublime to the considerably less than. It needs to be noted that the last few shows – this, Ladies Night, and Things I Know to be True, alongside the Youth Company’s Boys – have all been very strong, in spite of some considerable COVID-related delays and disruptions. Glasses up to this excellent run continuing.

Once, The Court Theatre, 2021. Photos by Emma Brittenden Photography

Once runs at The Court Theatre from 19 June – 24 July, 2021.

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