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.