When I traveled to England this year, I had made a firm decision that I wouldn’t see anything that I had already seen, or could possibly see, in New York. The first time I saw the stage adaptation of Once was on its opening night last March (incidentally just prior to my last trip to London). However, I was drawn to the London production solely on a press photo I saw of the show’s West End leads, Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić. I loved the film and its simple but moving Brief Encounter-meets-folk-rock romance, and had also liked the Broadway production very much, but there was something about seeing these two leads that led me to buy a ticket, thus breaking my own rule. I snagged a seat in the stalls from the show’s website for £19.50 only hours before the curtain.
Currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End, the London production of Once (which started in Dublin a few weeks back) replicates John Tiffany’s Tony-winning staging. I have to confess I found myself loving the show even more the second time around. I suppose it could be that a second encounter with the show might heighten the experience, but frankly I think the West End ensemble takes the show to another plane entirely. The show as a whole is warmer, more intimate and more visceral. Bennett is exceptionally well cast as Guy: sensitive, soulful and remarkably well-sung. Cvitešić makes an incredible impression as Girl. Seeing the production in NY, I felt that the character was just a quirky, idiosyncratic device. However, Cvitešić plays her like a real person. The personality is still offbeat, but there is also strength, empathy, and frustration; such dimension and depth which delightfully took me by surprise. Together, their chemistry is palpable, taking the stakes to a higher level and make the ending all the more moving as a result.
The entire ensemble was outstanding, but special kudos to Michael O’Connor as Da, whose pre-show “Raglan Road” brought the bustling Phoenix Theatre to pin-drop silence as well as Ryan Fletcher, bleach blonde and eccentric as Svec. Their musicianship is impeccable. I am not the biggest fan of the John Doyle school of actors-as-musicians, but it is so perfect for this show.
I was told by several friends to expect a different kind of audience experience in London; people are more reserved, more guarded and apt to be seemingly less enthused throughout. So imagine my response as the Brits around me sobbed openly during the last 15 minutes of the show, and through the three (!) curtain calls. Since I was flying solo, I made some “show friends” – those people with whom you share two or three hours and then never see again – the two older ladies to my right were long time friends, both Irish. One had flown in for a visit, and the one next to me is a London resident who had picked up last minute tickets. At intermission, realizing I was familiar with the show, one of them asked,
“So you’ve seen this already?”
“Yes, I saw it on Broadway on its opening night.”
“Oh, really? Is it doing well there?”
“Yes, it’s a huge success. And it won the Tony Award for Best Musical.”
“Did you hear that? He says this won a Tony.” (to me) “And to think, we’d never heard of this show before this afternoon!”
The London resident told me about how Once seemed to have slipped through the radar, since the British media has been focusing on The Book of Mormon. Interestingly the two Best Musical winners opened within days of each other, meaning they’ll likely duke it out at next year’s Olivier Awards. We then turned to the topic of ticket pricing. I told them how much less expensive and easier it had been for me to get a ticket for the London production than to the original playing on 45th Street. They were more than a little appalled that theatre in America is as expensive as it is. As the interval came to a close, they unloaded all the recommendations of plays I should see while I was in town. After the bows, the two ladies sat down, tears in their eyes. In our parting exchange, the one next to me grabbed my arm and said, “I need to see this again.”
I wish I could see the original London cast of Once a second and third time myself. (And I really hope there’s an original London cast album).