Once the Musical – even twice is probably not enough

The new cast of Once at the Phoenix Theatre, London

The new cast of Once at the Phoenix Theatre, London. Picture: Brinkhoff Moêgenburg

Scott Matthewman writes… As fans of musical theatre, we’ve all been there. We’ve been to see a show, loved it, raved about it – and then someone we know goes to see it on our recommendation. And suddenly, that sense of fear hits. What if they don’t like it as much as we did?

As a reviewer, it doesn’t get any easier. Finding that people disagree with my assessment of a show is nothing new. Appreciation, or otherwise, of art in any form has an element of subjectivity. But it takes people you know forking out for show tickets based on your recommendation that keeps you honest, that prevents you from talking up – or doing down – shows just for the sake of a headline.

And sometimes, you are that other person yourself. You go back to a show that you adored, hoping to recapture that sense of magic that made you first fall in love. But it’s (nearly) a completely different cast now. Will the factors that made you enthuse so much the first time round still be there?

Thoughts such as this were present in my mind when, last Thursday, I made a return visit to Once at the Phoenix Theatre, a show I utterly adored when it first opened last year. Declan Bennett has now left the role of Guy to take up residence in EastEnders’ Albert Square, and while Zrinka Cvitešić remains in the role of Girl, most of the rest of the cast has changed.

The lead role of Guy is, for a limited time, taken by Arthur Darvill, who recently played the same role in the Broadway production, but in the UK is best known for his TV roles in Broadchurch and Doctor Who. His collaborations with Che Walker on the plays Been So Long, The Front Line and The Lightning Child have proved that he is a talented composer – but how would that translate into the onstage role of a singer-songwriter? And even if I loved the production in the hands of this new cast as much as I had the first time round, my companion for the evening would be a work colleague who rarely, if ever, goes to the theatre. What would happen if the show wasn’t to her taste? Would Once be, quite literally, enough?

What immediately works in Once’s favour is the blurring of the line between audience and show, with the pub set working as a functioning stalls bar, and cast members kicking up an Irish-Czech take on a Ceilidh while we look on, drinking our overpriced wine from protective sippy cups like dipsomaniacal toddlers. It puts the most wary of theatre newbies at their ease, allowing them to realise that, while this may be unfamiliar territory, they are welcome.

But still, you worry. With every funny line – and in Once, there are plenty – you find yourself pausing a little, listening to one side, checking to see if what is making you laugh is doing the same for your friend. And then you hear them guffawing, and you relax. And when, in Act II, the visual use of subtitles to overcome differences between English and Czech is subverted to produce one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments, you are too busy holding back your own tears to notice that your friend, the one who worried more than you did that they may not ‘get’ musical theatre, has been even more swept away in the story than you ever were.

And you realise that it would have been okay anyway. You stop worrying about what other people think, because once again, Once, again, has brought you into the story of a Guy and a Girl. You share their love for an evening, and if others don’t – well that’s fine too, but it’s their loss.




Readers may also be interested in:

Once the Musical – Phoenix Theatre – Review

Once the Musical secret gig showcases new cast – News

Check out our video clips from the secret gig on Musical Theatre Review’s YouTube channel


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