I was delighted to last night find myself unexpectedly in the Phoenix Theatre for the West End opening of Once (many thanks to Orin @wolfpaq for the ticket). I loved the original movie (released in 2006) not least because it was one of the very few movies originating during the boom years in Ireland that showed a different side to the cappu-latte culture that seemed to have sprung out of nowhere (notable exceptions of course being movies like Adam and Paul). Directed by John Carney with locations like Mountjoy Square as a backdrop, Once seemed to be definitely more Sean O’Casey than About Adam
It was also the first movie that made explicit how multi-cultural Ireland had become particularly with the influx of Eastern Europeans drawn to the country in search of a better life. So what marked the film out at the time for me was its genuine authenticity - not to mind some beautiful music written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who in 2008 won the Oscar for the Best Original Song for Falling Slowly.
First produced as a musical in New York in 2011, it went on to win 8 Tony Awards when the screen play was adapted by Enda Walsh in a production directed by John Tiffany. The adaptation by Walsh is a work of genius and he writes here (in a brilliant and funny article) in The Guardian about why he fell in love with the piece. I think he sums it up beautifully when comparing the New York production with the London version;
"Tonally everything has shifted around this cast; they have made everything so unaffectedly true, but there is something grittier than before - something that caputures a mood right now, maybe. It feels like this cast has been taken from the streets and found themselves sharing a love letter to a city that's been hurt".
What is most extraordinary (but I guess not too surprising given the pedigree of the creative and production team) is that for a production that originated in the US the show is most definitely totally rooted in Dublin City. My husband is a Dubliner through and through (I'm from Cork usually regarded with some disdain by Dubliners) and he found the language and tone resonated absolutely with him. The set is a tour de force in its effectiveness and simplicity and the cast are orchestra and actors in turn. It's a million miles from what you would expect from a traditional West End musical and all the more exciting for that.
It's a simple story about belonging and loss and love and as I watched flashes of other Irish works kept coming back to me like Translations and Whistle in the Dark, and indeed an infamous production of Plough and the Stars by Director Gary Hynes that had the literati in Dublin up in arms with its simplicity and austerity (and I would argue a similar vein of authenticity). But all stories too that dealt with language, culture, voice and the struggle to belong. For contemporary Ireland the notes of immigration will not be lost and it's quite something that the original author (though he wrote it during the good times) saw what was both the reality of that time in Ireland for the have not's while simultaneously foreshadowing the Ireland of today.
I don't mean to sound like it's bleak because the music makes it so joyful. What London will make of it I don't know (the critics seem to have welcomed it today with the Evening Standard describing it as the newest West End hit but I talk a lot about how important it is to be authentic if you want to really resonate and have some standing in the conversation (any conversation social or otherwise). I think it will appeal to a broad church of theatre goers who are looking for something different, something that rings true, moving and funny in equal parts, where silence is as important as dialogue. And besides, any show that opens with the line “so you fix my hoover and I pay you with music, yes?" has to be intriguing enough to make you want to experience it.
There’s no doubt that after months of cold and depressing weather a little sunshine makes everything better. But is something more than that going on in Dublin? On my visit last week there was a real buzz around the city that seems at odds with the endless gloomy economic commentary we usually associate with Ireland.
One noticeable difference is the vast improvement in service quality in the restaurants I visited. Levels of service during the Celtic Tiger years left a lot to be desired and I guess when the money is flowing you don’t need to care so much about your customers. But when you have to compete for every euro of disposable income, when you’ve have learned some of the lessons of boom and bust, it alters your perspective somewhat.
Good quality food seems to be a cornerstone which is all the better given the recent scandals we have endured around horsemeat and the like. And excitingly there seem to be entrepreneurs in the restaurant sector who are embracing social media in innovative ways.
One such creative is Joe Macken responsible for Crackbird (addicted to chicken is the strapline). If you tweet a reservation request 24 hours in advance using #tweetseats and a slot is available on the tweetseats table 2 of you dine for free. The chicken is fantastic and the potato salad to die for. And it’s cheap. You’ll find it on 60 Dame Street around the corner from South William Street (which seems to be undergoing a quiet food revolution).
I was lucky enough to be brought for a meal to The Rustic Stone where Ann O Dea and I enjoyed cooking our main course on hot volcanic stones adding a lovely bit of theatre to the eating experience. The quality of the produce was again second to none and if you find the idea of having to cook something on a stone a little daunting the staff hover helpfully nearby so you don’t feel awkward about asking a question. Ann very kindly picked up the tab commenting that if we had eaten in a similar restaurant a couple of years ago she would have been adding at least another 80 euro to the bill.
You’ll find Coppinger Row on the pedestrian lane off South William Street at the back of the Powers Court Centre and another gem. Mediterranean food with absolutely fresh produce and one of the best salad dressings I’ve ever had. Friendly staff and buzzy atmosphere and again it’s light on the pocket. (I didn’t try them but the cocktails are supposed to be fantastic).
And it’s not just in the heart of the city. My mum, sister and I took a trip out to Howth Harbour where there are some beautiful restaurants. We had lunch in The Brass Monkey again fantastic service, value and quality. I had a small bowl of chowder and fish and chips for 11 euro, which is pretty unbeatable. And of course the fish is super fresh with the added advantage of a view of the trawlers moored just outside.
On my last evening I wandered into Fallon & Byrne on Exchequer Street, a combination of amazing food hall, restaurant and separate wine bar down stairs. It’s located in what used to be Dublin’s Telephone Exchange and retains the Art Deco style. Popping into the wine bar it felt all a little more New York than Dublin and the place was hopping. The walls are packed with shelves housing fantastic wines. You pick your wine and then pay a corkage charge (but I am reliably informed that if you go on a Monday you don’t have to pay that).
And of course I couldn’t leave without having a bowl of the amazing chicken wings in Elephant & Castle in Temple Bar. E&C was one of the first new restaurants back in the day when Temple Bar was being regenerated and it’s retained its attraction through the lean years. You still can’t book a table but if you rock up they will take your name and then you can wander off (usually for about 40 minutes with just enough time to enjoy a pint of Guinness) and return to the bliss of the best chicken wings in Dublin.
I have felt sad (and mad) about Ireland over the past eight years I’ve been in London. But I am glad to see that things seem to be changing and that maybe, just maybe, a corner is being quietly turned.