6th November 2023
Once upon a time, in a faraway land (well, okay- Dublin),
Lived a young Czech mother (Girl) and a busker-repairman (Guy).
He improovered her hoover, she played him a tune;
They were making sweet music, pretty soon.
Minds out of the gutter, people- all the ‘action’ happens in the recording studio. Once the Musical, recapped in rhyming couplet form above, is a refreshingly uncliched romance (though I won’t spoil the ending here). Based on the multi award-winning 2007 indie film of the same name, it’s currently touring the country (until July), having just completed a five-night stint at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre.
The original featured real-life rocker Glen Hansard in lead, flanked by newbie Marketa Irglova (though was initially supposed to have starred former professional musician and current Blinder-in-chief Cillian Murphy), and was written by John Carey.
The stage version, showcasing the versatility of actor-musicians Daniel Healy (Guy) an Emma Lucia (Girl), was adapted by renowned playwright Enda Walsh (who, incidentally, also penned the first play Shelby, ahem, Murphy, ever did- small [Irish] world). Walsh has altered it quite a bit in adaptation, too – many elements of the film are missing. Fortunately enough, these omissions just so happen to be of the bad bits.
Take the (questionable) 18-year age gap between the two leads, eschewed in favour of a duo with an equal number of decades under their respective belts, and completely convincing chemistry. (Prior to the Liverpool run, they’d been spotted busking together at venues around the city). Or the (equally as questionable) gaping hole in film-Guy’s guitar, which nonetheless still manages to be played chord-perfectly. Sure, we get he’s a grungy street muso, but stage-Guy’s merely scratched six-string still succeeded in conveying this.
Even the finer plot details of the film were fine-tuned, as with removing film-Guy’s evocation of a distant London being too far to travel to in order to reconcile with his estranged girlfriend (Dublin to London? EasyJet, anyone?). Transplanting said girlfriend across the Atlantic, bagel-munching in sunny New York, made much more narrative sense. It also made his *spoiler* final scene of farewell all the more poignant, poised as he was not only atop the second-story balcony of an ingeniously constructed stage, but on the threshold of a new life on a new continent.
Even the film’s much-bemoaned ending, though kept, was vastly improved by the sheer joy stage-Girl expressed upon receiving her parting piano-gift. (‘Boyfriend, schmoyfriend,’ you could almost hear her thinking, as she greeted it with a Hello; ‘I can play Schubert on this thing.’) Lucia was definitely well cast in her role, bringing a sense of gawky girl-next-doorishness, coupled with some signature Czech guilelessness. ‘I am Czech,’ she is apt to remind all in earshot on multiple occasions, ‘we are always serious.’
Thankfully, the production certainly isn’t: it’s been injected with some much needed levity to counteract the tale of an ultimately tragic romance, courtesy of another addition to the stage version. Well, two of them, actually: the delightful duo that are Billy and Reza. The former, a music shop proprietor, is a minor film figure, fleshed out in the play version to create a karate-kicking, Rioja-drinking (and -mispronouncing) loveable loon; the latter is a completely new invention, a thigh-slapping Czech seductress with plenty of chutzpah and not much skirt. Catnip to self-styled lothario Billy, then, a ‘sensuous ninja’ (his words, not mine). Their impromptu matador dance duet, gauche and completely divergent from the film’s subtle understatedness, was nonetheless a show highlight.
Not only did we get two new characters, but we were also treated to a couple of bonus strip scenes. Although perhaps here the term ‘treated’ is used in a sense as loose as Svejc’s (Lloyd Gorman’s) trousers; he whose antics would not have been out of place in an Icelandic Eurovision entry (Y-fronts plus cymbals… enough said). Humourwise, slapstick existed alongside decodable in-jokes and gentle ribbing, largely directed towards Ronan Keating, the original West End lead, for whom Healy has also penned many tracks.
Meanwhile, Walsh managed to maintain the film’s best bits alongside all this madcappery. The quaint Hibernian charm of the film’s original soundtrack? Check. The complex chemistry between the two leads? Check. Three strapping soap addicts casually invading Girl’s flat? Czech, Czech, Czech. Even the inclusion of the much-underused phrase ‘hanky panky,’ which certainly needs some more promo. And this time, in the tale’s peak tender moment, when Girl confesses to Guy ‘Miluji tebe,’ we as audience get it translated, courtesy of a star-spangled backscreen: I love you. Guy, on the other hand, still remains heart-wrenchingly clueless.
Meanwhile, in conversations conducted Czech to Czech, this technique is reversed, as Slavic translations are provided behind the cast to lend the impression that the dialogue spoken is in another tongue. Yet this decision felt perhaps a tad reductive: language use within the plot is an issue heavily politicised, as a marker of social inclusion and/or exclusion, or solidarity, of differing opinions, cultural norms and expectations, as well as the reason the Guy-Girl relationship is ultimately scuppered. To have the whole cast conversing in English, while it may have saved on those Duolingo fees, was a leveling oversimplification of identity. That, and the arguably unnecessary (and slightly soporific) reprise of the track ‘Gold’ are my only two quibbles (and the reason there’s a tip missing off that elusive fifth star).
Pretty minor quibbles, though, for Once the Musical is that unicorn-rare breed: an adaptation that trumps the original. Yet even if in the battle of Play vs. Film the former claims the crown, I would recommend seeing both: Once is good enough to watch twice.