When Once first premiered in 2011, it was the first of its kind: a simple story with a big heart, packed with enough folk ballads and torch songs to pack a pub to the rafters. Based on the 2006 film of the same name, it traded in the usual Broadway spectacle for something quieter, more minimalistic.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s much-acclaimed 2019 production managed to breathe new life into this twelve-year-old show. It now arrives at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre at long last with many of its original cast and largely unchanged since its premiere.
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s sumptuous score still thrums with the lovelorn poeticism that made the show famous. But this production began in a small black-box theatre, a setting that helped it achieve a vital sense of intimacy hard to replicate in the 1000-strong Comedy Theatre. Despite this production's best efforts, the bigger venue dilutes some of the show’s potency, making its already understated style appear muted. Still, there’s plenty to love about this big-hearted and skillfully rendered revival.
"Enjoy the buskers", we’re told via overhead speakers before the show starts. In effect, we already have; the show’s 13 cast members have been wandering the aisles of the theatre, laughing their way through various acoustic covers of Top 40 hits. The fourth wall isn’t broken so much as it is quietly stepped over. It’s an ingenious move from director Richard Carroll; the perfect introduction to the casual, pub-style atmosphere we will spend the next two and a half hours sharing with the cast – the musical equivalent of an Irish pub lock-in.
We soon meet our broken-hearted leading man, Guy (Abe Mitchell), a busker pouring his heart out on the streets of Dublin to an audience of one: Girl (Stefanie Caccamo). It’s a classic meet-cute: Irish Guy meets Czech Girl. He’s a ‘hoover’ repairman; she’s got a broken hoover. She’s the dogged optimistic and a single mother; he’s the disenfranchised musician with newly minted cynicism.
The story that follows would be nauseatingly twee if it weren’t for Enda Walsh’s restrained script and the heart-wrenching power of the score. Caccamo’s Girl pushes Guy to make an EP using music he wrote for his (ex) girlfriend. Of course, these love songs soon become less about the absent girlfriend and more about this enigmatic woman with the broken vacuum cleaner. In lesser hands, the story might be tired – the feminine muse curing the emotionally stunted man. But the show isn’t just about the pair of doomed lovers. It’s about the other ordinary relationships that grow up around their connection.
Once is an ensemble show through and through, with actors doubling as band members as well as supporting characters. Instruments in hand, they accompany each other on stage. In fact, they rarely leave stage. Wherever they are, Peter Rubie’s atmospheric lighting design casts them in just enough light to make their presence known.
Standouts include Victoria Falconer as the bawdy bartender and, in a mystical touch, musical saw player. Falconer also moonlights as the musical director and her expert arrangements and leadership steer the show beautifully. Pavan Kumar Hari is enigmatic as the soap-opera-addicted Svec, and Anthony Craig shines as the hilarious bank manager. There is not a weak voice among them – though some enunciation issues occasionally pop up in the dialogue – and they move through each set change and transition with seamless choreography thanks to Amy Campbell’s subtle direction.
As Girl, Caccamo delivers a standout performance. The hype that has followed her since her first performance four years ago is utterly deserving. Beside her, Mitchell’s boyish good looks and guttural top notes are perfect for the often one-note Guy (usually played by Toby Francis). But his performance struggles to push past the third row. His posture and stance lack the specificity that makes Caccamo’s character seem fully realised. Caccamo's anachronisms, and masterful control of vocal intonation, breathe life into an underwritten character. And with a buttery timbre, her voice commands the stage with ease.
To stage Once is to face the near-impossible task of translating a show that relies on the naturalism you’d expect from film rather than the larger-than-life language of theatre. For actors, it means delivering a performance for the backseats that does not compromise the understated believability that defines its characters. Some in the cast struggle to navigate this tension, either overexaggerating theatricality for comedic effect, or retreating too far into themselves that their characterisation can be barely understood by audiences beyond the first row.
But Darlinghurst Theatre’s production is the sum of its parts and these parts slot together like they were made to fit. "Love’s all very well, but in the hands of people it turns into soup", laments one of many stellar supporting characters as he sits watching the sunrise come up over Dublin. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the hands of this dedicated team, this heart-warming soup certainly goes down a treat.