‘Raises the heart & hits the spot’: ONCE – Ipswich ★★★★★

In Musicals, Opinion, Regional theatre, Reviews, Ticket recommendations by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich – until 22 September 2018

The miniature of Libby Watson’s gorgeous Dublin pub set in the foyer raises your spirits straight away. Sometimes only an Irish pub will do: a dream of a pub, rarer now in reality, where everyone can grab an instrument and joke and blend and drum and pluck and fiddle and defy the hard world outside. And while as we take our seats it’s Behan’s Ould Triangle and the rest to busk us in, once the show begins it’s Glen Hansard’s marvellous ‘Falling Slowly’: the song that won the film an Oscar. And there you are: up walking on the moonbeams with Hansard’s lovely songs.

Like thousands during the London run of the Broadway production, I fell joyfully for Enda Walsh’s glorious opening-out of the quirky film about a despairing Dublin street musician whose spirits and hopes are transformed by a young Czech woman in the street. Hansard and Markéta Irglova wrote the beguiling, memorable bittersweet songs together and devised the simple pavement story; they starred in the film, but it’s made to be a stage musical with roaming, versatile actor-musicians. And Walsh’s book mines all its hope and humour, and adds more. And, notably, it rounds out the character of the girl whose forthright hopefulness changes more than one life.

And goodness, director Peter Rowe strikes lucky in his heroine. Emma Lucia is barely a year graduated from Mountview, and almost startlingly perfect in the part of the Czech girl. Which requires her to play both Mendelssohn and the Hansard music, sing beautifully and remain convincingly Czech throughout in accent and manner. Not to mention magnetising us with a modest but firm stage presence so that we believe the galvanising difference she makes to the (equally well-cast) ragbag of Dublin pub regulars and struggling new Czech immigrants.

They’re glorious too, notably Sean Kingsley majestically explosive as the leather-jerkined rocker Billy, Kate Robson-Stuart as the exuberantly tarty Reza who dances a tango duet with him, and Samuel Martin as the buttoned-up gay bank manager who writes a truly terrible song about Bandon.  And leading the pack there’s Daniel Healy as the “broken-hearted fixer-sucker guy” who mends Hoovers and is on the point of dumping his guitar on the pavement and giving up music forever.

This joint Wolsey and Hornchurch production, the regional premiere long overdue for this lovely show,   raises the heart and hits the spot.  I wish it was touring everywhere, because to see such quality at out-of-London prices is almost a human right.  And in this time of unease (I am not typing the B-word) what better than to enjoy the gorgeous joke of the way that the melancholy and doubt  of us offshore islanders gets startled, then invigorated, by that slightly terrifying East European directness of address,   and  that ruthlessly cheerful pragmatism.   “Serious? I am always serious. I am Czech”.   When the drooping busker asks the girl where she gets her energy, it’s “I am a young mother.”.  Her own mother – Susannah van den Berg – surrounded by keen compatriots learning English off soap-operas – is another powerhouse of exotic energy.

 

The staging is smooth and nimble, the movement and breaks into dance adeptly homelike:  despite the star quality of the two leads it feels the most ensemble of pieces, especially in the magical moments when an intimate number begins,  thickens as the band moves forward to wrap around the moment’s emotion,  then retreat until we are back in the shabby flat or pavement .  The redemptive, hopeful theme carries the slight strong story onwards,  all the stronger for denying us the formulaic rom-com ending;    but on another level the whole show is a chain of moments,  of treats:  musical, comic or touching.  Perfect.

 

www.wolseytheatre.co.uk  this week – then to Queens, Hornchurch.

rating five

Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.