Musicals these days tend to batter you into submission. Many rely on orchestral bombardment, saccharin smiles, and jazz hands in an attempt to win you over. I say that as unashamed fan of the genre (I took a 26 hour flight to London to watch Book of Mormon on the West End).
Once does none of this, instead it wins you over with its simplicity, charm and air of sweet melancholy. And while it’s not likely to blow you away with its choreographed dance numbers or gorgeous set, the play is anything but artless: in fact it owes its success not just to its versatile but to the quiet brilliance of Jesse Peach’s direction and the show’s restrained set design and lighting.
In fact, taking my seat in the ASB Waterfront Theatre for Saturday’s packed opening night, the set – or lack thereof – was the first thing that convinced me that we we’re about to witness something special. Rather than attempting a clique recreation of an Irish pub, Peach and co. opted for a starkly lit revolving in-set circle centre-stage. The stage and isles, were occupied by the cast joyfully wandering whilst in full song, serenading those of us lucky enough to get there early with a collection of Irish folk songs. It was hard not to get swept away in the joyful carousing, though I will admit turning to wondering what exactly was going on. As the stage lights dimmed (and I was finally convinced that I hadn’t arrived halfway through), I settled in for a night that will stay long in the memory.
The play began its life as a book by Enda Walsh and later became a motion picture in 2007 written and directed by John Carney. Armed with a tiny budget and a camcorder the filmed was a massive hit winning the leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová an Oscar for Best Original Song in the process. The story is pretty straightforward, chronicling a love that can never happen, between a failing Dublin songwriter and a Czech immigrant, it has that Brief Encounter bittersweet ache to it. It was perfect in its simplicity.
The play, which was adapted in a fairly straightforward fashion by famed Irish playwright Edna Walsh, wears its heart on its sleeve openly. It’s a simple and genuinely affecting story about love and connection, about finding your voice. It’s a love letter to folk music, to the working poor, and Ireland itself. It’s wonderful.
Jesse Peach fought for years to get the rights to put on this play in Auckland and I’m glad he did. He and his talented ensemble of actor/musicians don’t just do the film justice, they exceed it.
I loved the ebb and flow of the dynamics between the players and the way the whole performance seemed to breathe with superb use of dramatic pause. This was delivered by wonderful performances from every member of the cast and driven by great direction and a simple set that laid the framework for an evening of absolute pleasure and enjoyment.
Throughout the show instruments are passed between the 12-person strong cast, and songs seem to be learned as we’re watching (obviously they’ve been rehearsed to death but I’m sure you get my meaning). It’s a very easy, fluid kind of storytelling and the ensemble headed by multi-instrumentalist Adam Ogle and singer-songwriter Lisa Crawley, absolutely nailed it.
Cast were required to act, dance, sing, play a variety of instruments, and even act as stage hands throughout the night. Dropping in to centre stage to deliver lines and out to pick up instruments and play along to the action, the world of the production is built in front of our eyes and by curtain call it’s hardly a musical – more of a play with songs, I guess.
With the backing of this great ensemble, Ogle and Crawley shone in their roles. Ogle, brought unbelievable intensity and vulnerability to his character. He shades Crawley on the acting front, but really blew me away with his spot-on vocals, impressive guitar playing, and ability to keep up an Irish accent even while singing. Crawley was a stronger presence that her film counterpart and provided the production with most of its comic relief. She is an extraordinary vocal talent and offers the perfect foil Ogles vulnerability – and in combination deliver some truly memorable moments with a shared deep connection.
I loved every second of this joyful production. It absolutely blew me away. Please go and see it while you still can.