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Review Round-up: Critics praise Tony-winning Once

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John Tiffany's production of multiple Tony Award-winning screen-to-stage musical Once received its West End premiere at the Phoenix Theatre last night (9 April 2013).

When an Irish busker and a young Czech mother meet through a shared love of music, their songwriting sparks a deep connection and a tender, longing romance that neither of them could have expected. Starring Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic, it runs until 30 November 2013.

Michael Coveney

...Once is a genuine surprise, simple and affecting, and full of fresh music and a wonderful ensemble spirit… With Tiffany’s Black Watch colleague Steven Hoggett doing the movement, there is a theatrical fluency to proceedings the film lacked, but no skimping on the rawness of the songs… One risk that almost backfires badly is the over-deliberate pacing… And the Act Two bust-up isolating the gay Cork bank manager (beautifully done by Jez Unwin) from the Dublin boyos (a Walsh initiative) takes far too long, and the night-time outing over the bay, ditto. But all is forgiven (well, almost) when the company dissolves into the magical a capella “Gold” and the sustained dying fall of the resolution is shaken up in a joyous reprise of the main song.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

Once is different from most other musicals: quiet, wistful, tender… Once has a simplicity that will strike some as skimpy and others as admirably economical. Enda Walsh’s book expands the film’s script yet is still concise, and John Tiffany directs with fluent skill. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are heartfelt. The keynotes are melancholy and introspection… Cvitesic is eager, almost forceful, yet shows us the wrenching effects of being torn between two destinies. Bennett isn’t especially charismatic, but sings with a striking mix of passion and vulnerability. Their intimacy feels completely authentic. The result is a slow burner. Once doesn’t have big stars or a strong plot, and there are too many silences. For all its inherent gentleness it’s not exactly family-friendly either. But it has a delicate soulfulness and a truthful charm.

Michael Billington

...This one wins you over with its simplicity, charm and air of sweet melancholy... it is anything but artless: in fact it owes its success not just to its versatile performers but to the quiet brilliance of John Tiffany's direction and Bob Crowley's design… it's the staging that for me makes the evening work beautifully… The actor-musicians also effortlessly become characters in the story with striking contributions from Michael O'Connor, Jez Unwin, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst... It is, in short, an unusual musical in its stress on pure emotion and its apparent informality. But don't be fooled: it may not wear its art on its sleeve but it is most cunningly contrived.

Libby Purves
The Times

...Enda Walsh’s musical book brings it - especially the heroine - into more vivid life… under John Tiffany’s direction miraculously retains the intimate feeling and freshness of fringe. All the cast are musicians… It is a heartfelt celebration of musical empathy, the human need for art... Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic nicely convey a clash of Irish moodiness with Czech pragmatism… When the second act sees this disparate gang unite for the big number, your hair stands on end and you tremble with love for them all. Sounds schlocky? No. It’s funny, it’s truthful, it sings. If London audiences don’t love it to bits I disown them.

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

...it is lip-quiveringly sensitive, almost ostentatiously sincere and hugely successful... The tone is bitter-sweet, like a modern-day Brief Encounter. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who both starred in the film, are mostly sad, wistful and melodic, though they sometimes build up a head of steam and become downright anguished... the action is set in an Irish pub, beautifully realised in Bob Crowley’s design... songs and dialogue segue seamlessly. But there are some corny moments... There is a genuine tenderness between the main couple, though neither Declan Bennett nor Zrinka Civitesic prove quite as touching as the stars of the film... But my frequent impatience with this show certainly didn’t seem to be shared by most of the audience, who rose as one to applaud Once.  

Paul Taylor

...With minimal props and in what feels like a cross between a concert and drama, John Tiffany's charmingly funny and affecting production comes with shades of John Doyle... During her attempts to reconcile him with his ex-girlfriend and through the switch of allegiance, the Guy’s music to my ear does not audibly change or deepen in manner (as it surely should) from the rather James Blunt-like “Falling Slowly”, the Oscar-winning song.  Indeed one of the most ravishing sequences is an a cappella reprise by the company of a number from the outset.  This company's wonderful instrumental playing, comic characterisations and supple stylised movement offsets the shortcomings in the over-protracted love story and make it well worth giving Once the once-over.

Robert Shore

Rarely has a show been at once so utterly generic and so spontaneously unconventional as this multiple-Tony-winning stage musical based upon the Oscar-winning film of the same name... But there’s real charm and unforced intensity in the hyper-musical telling, which has the whole cast constantly plucking away at guitars, bowing violins and banging drums…I f the folksy songs, written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, occasionally threaten to fall into a mawkish MOR torpor, the arrangements are smart and varied enough…to keep your ears blissfully entertained.


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