Once (The Musical) Live In The West End

We’ve all seen it, those little words tacked until the start of a film – based on the book by – and we’ve all heard that knowing sigh as people realise that for the rest of time the debate won’t be about the independent strength of the feature, but rather by the comparison and demand to answer one unanswerable question – which is better?

And this is exactly one of those situations. Once is a stunning film. Actually, it’s beyond stunning. Completely understated, in every aspect you examine, from the performances, to the production, to the music. Everything just comes together to create a film that will move you and blow you away with a power far more reaching than any premise or setup would make you think possible. And now they’ve turned it into a stage musical.

Phoenix Theatre London - Once The Musical

I shouldn’t be surprised, the film is that good, and the music such an integral part of that, it seems a logical leap to transcribe the tale from the big screen to the small stage. And of course, because I love the film and the music as much as I do, I wanted to go and see it, but I had that lingering doubt in the back of my mind, that the admiration and affection the movie created between us wouldn’t transfer over, that I was waiting to be let down because the stage show wouldn’t be what I wanted it to be. What I remember from the film.

And sadly, if you set yourself up to fall you usually do and I slightly feel that’s what has happened this time. The stage show has consciously tried to remove itself from the direct firing line of the film because it know’s it can’t compete. It’s confined to a single stage for one. And as a result, it has taken the tale and tried to compact it into a format that carries the same strengths and passions but in a new setting and for me it just didn’t work. The one big, big reason it failed. They have changed the tone.

The film, is gritty and real, and yet the stage show is reflective and insular. It feels slow in comparison to the film, the natural circadian pacing lacking and being transformed into a recounting rather than a adventure meant that you lost that sense of motion even further. The new pub setting while fitting for the new idea and tone just doesn’t work because it distracts from the story at large and even results in everything failing to gel together. In fact, I actually found it hard at times to exactly picture where everything was taking place even though I knew why it was.

The other problem with this shift in tone of the source material is that they appear to have made it more comedic. The film for me has a cool loving charm to it. That subtle, smiling sense of humour and yet the stage show is designed to be a full on belly laugh. It feels too much. And on occasions it feels too slapstick. It’s just not the same kind of love and affection that won me over originally.

PreShow Drink - Once The Musical

It also didn’t seem to start. There was an onstage pre-drinks get together that resulted in backing cast coming on stage and performing some songs outside of the show, to keep you entertained. The problem was this was then virtually seemlessly blended into the start and while you’re happily watching people take their seats, or continue there discussion you suddenly realise Ronan Keating is now leading the line while the house lights are still up, it created an uneasy tension that took a while to fade.

You can look past all of this though, because the greatest strength Once has, the reason I’m sitting in a West End theatre, is it’s music. And while thankfully it’s all there, unabridged and unmolested, it sadly serves to create another problem. I couldn’t help but feel that the musical was essentially just the music poorly joined together. Somebody connecting tracks on a CD without knowing the overall story. Too much emphasis placed on the notes and the strength of the recital that everything else had become secondary. But like I said, that’s a double edged sword anyway because the music really is just that good, that you could just listen to it on it’s own.

Ronan Keating & Jill Winternitz - Once The Musical

Ronan Keating is currently belting out the lead vocals as Guy, and he steals the show. While some of his physical acting may be a little inexperienced, he’s there to sing more than act and his voice is great, really revoking the memories of Glen Hansard from the film. In one respect, I almost wished it was just a “Ronan Keating sings folk songs” performance such is the strength of his musical turn. Annoyingly though, Jill Winternitz playing Girl, opposite Keating, just lacks the clarity and chemistry to really pull the part off. Combined with Keating I was entertained but not in love. The spark just isn’t really there between them appearing throughout the majority to just be a little bit too serious. Too tense.

My biggest complaint though is that they’ve spoilt the greatest moment of passion, warmth and unbridled love in the film. The moment of peaking climax played out through anticlimax. The Musical has translated her answer to: Noor-esh-ho?

This whole review might sound like I am damning every aspect of the Musical, that it’s some inferior product that should be banished from existence for daring to change an almost flawless work of musical and cinematic perfection. But I’m not. I’m just saying that for me, the film is leaps and bounds better. I really enjoyed the musical, I’m am very, very glad I’ve seen it and I would recommend it to anybody, even those who have seen the film. But the bottom line is that it’s just not as good.

It’s just too unsubtly re-imagined from what I wanted or expected. And whilst being so different allows it to stand on it’s own two feet it’s like the old debate about whether Dark Chocolate or Milk Chocolate is better? They share so much in common but we’ll always have our favourite.

7 out of 10 stars (7 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Stage First Edition

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