It’s funny how things happen sometimes. Early 2014, I was walking through London’s Piccadilly area with my best friend who loves musicals and we were talking about shows on our "to-see" list. Well, I say our list, he loves musicals, I am quite the opposite. Apart from the Lion King, I’m not fond of shows where people sing instead of talk and are often quite cheesey. I’m not insulting Broadway or the West End - I appreciate the immense talent and admire the production, but musicals, they’re not really my thing. Anyway, back to the point... passing a poster for “Once the Musical” (then starring David Hunter) my friend says “Oh!! You should see that. You’ll like it. It’s about a musician. He’s Irish! And he’s a busker! Ohh and he plays the guitar!! You’ll love it - perfect for you." I won’t add the part where he totally ruined the plot for me, but aside from that I was intrigued.
“Perfect” for me was alluding to (1) my like for all things Irish, including a certain boyband/solo artist (2) my growing music appreciation in recent years of guitar-playing male singer-songwriters and (3) my friendship with a couple of Australian buskers/musicians. This did sound good.
A few weeks later, I read the headline “Ronan Keating to make West End debut in Once the Musical”. I had to do a double-take. Was I seeing things? The very same Irish solo artist I mentioned above was going to take on the lead role in the show that was apparently perfect for me. I couldn’t help but laugh and shake my head in disbelief at the coincidence!
I decided I wanted to see Once before Ronan was in it. Not because I didn’t have faith in his ability, though that probably comes into any fan’s mind when their “idol” tries something new in full view of critics and critical public. More that I wanted to see the show for what it was, not just its rather handsome popstar male lead. I wanted to see it without bias (and without distraction!) so I could talk about it to friends without the “oh you would say that” assumptions that would surely come flying my way.
August 2014, Thursday matinee, I’d been told to go inside the theatre half an hour early for an “additional treat”. From the outside, the Phoenix theatre is small and unobvious - you can easily walk past it without realising. Small but beautiful as a lot of London theatres are, the interiors take you back in time with their intricate gold painted carvings, stairwells, mirrors and chandeliers.
The additional treat (this won’t be a spoiler for most) is that for 30 minutes before the show, you can go up onto the stage and buy a drink from the onstage bar. While you’re there a group of cast members set up centre stage, and, well, start a good old Irish sing-along amongst themselves, with guitars, drums and more! What this tries to achieve is simple and certainly works. When we walked up from our seats onto the stage, we were the first two up - others looked up at us slightly confused. Why are these girls up on stage? Are they press? What’s going on? But soon more people joined us.
If you do go onstage, take a moment or two to look out at the audience. So it’s a little intimidating, but who cares, you don’t know the faces looking at you, and they don’t know you. And the spotlights are so bright you can’t see much anyway. But for that moment in those lights, you can imagine what it’s like for the actors, what it’s like to treading world famous West end boards. You’re standing on a world-famous stage, that people come from all over the globe, literally, to see performances on.
The audience is ushered back to their seats and the show begins.
My friend was absolutely right. I did love it, from beginning to end. The show stands out and succeeds in its simplicity. Without giving it all away, there are no huge rolling set changes with grand backgrounds - just a few objects moved around and you’re taken from one scene to another.
The story is heart-warming and funny with more comedy than I expected, many laugh out loud moments and thankfully so, as there are a few sad moments too. I felt completely drawn into the story for the entire duration.
Once "the musical" is more a play with songs in it than a musical and as the story involves musicians making music, the songs seem more natural. Another stand out difference is that there is no orchestra, instead the cast play all the instruments. Again it would be a shame to give away too much as this makes up such a big part of the show’s charm. It is so subtly and cleverly done - I was fascinated throughout.
Okay, I loved it, you get it. What about Ronan then?
December 2014, I went to see Once for the second time, this time with Ronan playing lead. I am very glad (relieved!) I enjoyed the show so much the first time as I was genuinely excited to be seeing it again. Knowing the role he was playing, I could see how it'd would work. I was also looking forward to seeing how he differed from the previous lead.
I am an honest fan, if I don't like something, I don't pretend to. I know Ronan can sing live, but I was nervous about seeing him acting live on stage. Proudly I can say I think he is truly brilliant and completely natural in the role. Within minutes of the show starting, I'd forgotten that I was watching a popstar I've liked for 20 years - many times I actually had to remind myself it was him up there!
What surprised me and may surprise some others is that you don't hear Ronan singing the show's songs in a Ronan voice we all know from the radio - that would have been easier. Aside from the small feat of having to play the guitar throughout, he has learnt the songs as they were written, taking on a different tone and style from what we know entirely. That really impressed me.
Credit here is also due to the rest of the cast - given I'd seen the show before just recently, and being a fan of Mr Keating, I could have easily been fixated on Ronan for the whole time, but I found myself completely drawn into the entire story all over again. Rather than following Ronan wherever he was on stage, I was watching each of the cast, their expressions and interactions with each other, even when they weren't at the forefront of the story. I laughed at the jokes again, and yes, the sad bits got me, again.
So to end this rather long rambley entry/review, I'd like to congratulate the entire Once cast on a brilliant, lovely, simple, wonderful and powerful show - it will be sad to see it leave the West End at the end of March, but it is guaranteed to go out on a high for which the cast should be proud. And perhaps I will see it once, or twice more, before it goes...
If you like theatre, why not check out Once the Musical before it leaves.
Poster images and video copyright of Once The Musical
Ps If you find the ticket prices too expensive (which, to be honest, they really are) keep an eye on the ATG page a few days before, as the tiers drop in price, sometimes quite significantly, including for fantastic stall seats!