A strictly limited season of Once is playing until the 4th June at the Melbourne Comedy Theatre. Once is a small production that has a lot of heart but holds back from having a stronger heartbeat. Based on the 2007 Irish film of the same name by John Carney, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company has brought Once to the stage after a critical blessed run on Broadway the past decade. Having nabbed eight Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, an Academy Award, a Grammy Award and an Olivier Award, its indelible charm has struck a chord with many a theatregoer.
Channelling the ‘guy meets girl’ narrative hook in truly literal fashion – the two protagonists are aptly named ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl’ – Once’s story is fairly unsophisticated. When Dublin busker ‘Guy’ (played by Tony Francis), meets piano-playing Czech woman ‘Girl’ (played by Stefanie Caccamo), these two lovers of music find connection and intimacy that blossoms as they both dare to dream of something greater. It is a strikingly insular story that reminds its audience that no matter what relationship struggles are brewing in the background – a trusty piano, a healthy dose of flirting, and a well-used guitar will always be a soothing medicine to matters of the heart.
It features an ensemble of well-practised stage performers and singers, Caccamo in particular who strikes the perfect balance of being musically profound but also bluntly funny. Her character likes to speak forthrightly in a proudly Czech fashion, allowing certain moments in particular to have a humorous flair that bring levity to the more serious moments. Francis is less encapsulating; however, it is more an indictment on the characterisation of him than the performance itself. His lone-wanderer attitude sometimes lacks the pizazz it needs for such a musically charged romance, ultimately giving the show a meandering pace, especially in the second act. Special shoutout to Anthony Craig as the Bank Manager, managing to steal the show with his warmth, cheeky nature, and amusing physicality.
The minimalist set design makes way for some well-constructed lighting, allowing the moments where the two lead characters share their more intimate moments with tenderness and sole focus. It is a shame that it is at odds with a fairly unfocused use of space, the transitional moments between scenes in particular feeling noticeably unchoreographed. The musical numbers themselves are sung with soul and gusto, the accompanying ensemble dance and play their musical instruments surrounding the protagonists with energy and vigour. Its production design however does the performances few favours, it has a lacking spatial dynamism that leaves much of the stage empty and unused. Its Irish tavern aesthetic is employed very conservatively, moments that include going into ‘Guy’s bedroom are relegated to a simple corner of what is essentially a pub table – this immediately takes the audience out of the immersion.
The other main issue comes in its technical fumblings. It features a myriad of background sounds intended to make the audience feel as if they are walking alongside the hustle and bustle of the Dublin streets, but the volume and levelling of such sounds are often unbalanced and drown out the more serious or emotive moments. Certain parts of the ensemble featured timing issues and prop mishaps as well, a collection of tiny moments that indicate more fine tuning is needed going forward.
Practical niggles aside, Once is a reminder to never underestimate music’s ability to bring people together. While it loses its momentum toward the back half, it features an endearing chemistry between Francis and Caccamo, a strong supporting ensemble that sings and plays with professionalism and vivacity, and a touch of well-employed comedy. Ultimately, Once is a safe and rousing crowd-pleaser, fans of the story, and especially those with Irish roots, will have a vibrant and charming night out at the theatre.
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