Genre: Comedy Drama
Writer: Peter Rowe
Cast: Daniel Healy, Emma Lucia, Dan Bottomley, Samuel Martin, Matthew Burns, Ellen Chivers, Rosalind Ford, Lloyd Gorman, David Heywood, Peter Peverly & Susannah Van Den Berg
Review Date: January 20 2020
Performances: January 20-25 2020, 7.30pm & 2.30pm matinees
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool
Duration: 150 Minutes incl. an interval
Age Rating: 15+
Once has garnered tremendous worldwide support since arriving on the scene in an almost-understated manner, and the show has now arrived at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre. Given the city’s Irish connections dating back many years, Liverpool was always likely to be an appreciative location for the show to make an impact, but even putting history aside, the audience would still have been wowed by what was a superb production from start to finish.
Set in the heart of Dublin, Once had a bit of a pre-show with the characters all performing a knee-tapping Irish dance beforehand, which led to one down-on-his-luck male busker (known simply as Guy, played by Daniel Healy) sadly singing in a heartfelt and raw manner while playing his guitar to match his emotions. An impressed lady (again simply called Girl, played by Emma Lucia) complementing him before demonstrating her own skills on the piano, as well as singing talents to complement his. She is Czech, which leads to her talking straight to the point and occasionally coming out with direct comments that garnered laughs, as well as the reminder that, because she is Czech, she is “always serious”.
Girl asks Guy (I’m not being lazy, as they are the character’s names, remember) to fix her vacuum cleaner as doing such a task is his day job, and he does so in exchange not for money, but to play his song. She is becoming more impressed, but when he suggests that she stay the night at his home, she spurns his advances. This angers her friend Billy (Dan Bottomley), a shop-owner who is also rather direct and outspoken, but also good-hearted and funny. Guy and Girl resolve their differences and play music together more often. She encourages him to follow his dreams, being a positive, uplifting and optimistic character, but he, as a depressed and pessimistic soul, says no.
Still, their relationship builds, and she brings him to meet her family, which includes the revelation that she has a daughter, which sours his hopes of a romance developing. But they progress on the musical front, and eventually she suggests for him to ask for a bank loan to fund the possibility of him travelling to New York to further his chances of success as a vocalist. The bank manager (played by Samuel Martin) is impressed yet unable to approve such a decision, so Guy sings from the heart for him. Ultimately, he gets his loan, but then the real work begins, because now Guy and Girl need to put together a sample of his work, which requires help from the local community. In the meantime, while we wonder whether he will make it to New York (where his own ex-girlfriend lives), we also wonder whether Guy and Girl’s unique relationship will blossom into true love.
Once used the backdrop of a traditional Dublin pub for the duration of the show, with props such as a bed and instruments inserted at various points, along with some Irish flag-coloured bunting at the back. I particularly liked the scenes where the roof of the pub would be elevated to show characters standing or singing on the rooftop with the moonlight shining behind them. There is a real authenticity to this show, and while it obviously plays best in Dublin, it is a very accurate snapshot of Irish culture for those viewing it across the world, from Broadway to the West End.
The story is realistic and believable; it doesn’t try to exaggerate events or make you think “that wouldn’t happen”. It is gritty, it is at times near-the-knuckle, and it is relatable. It doesn’t take the easy route, nor does it try to be predictable with a number of minor swerves thrown in, amongst them some humorous visuals. It captures the true essence of Dubliners, because while the music is crucial to this tale, this is secondary to the tale of love, emotional pain and mental strength to keep on battling, and how one’s encouraging words (essentially a stranger) can make all the difference in laying the groundwork towards somebody following their dreams, if not quite achieving them to the maximum level.
In terms of performances, Daniel Healy and Emma Lucia work very well on-stage together, and both are highly accomplished musicians. Emma Lucia is a masterful performer in the musical department, while Daniel Healy’s vocals are enough to make everybody take notice (on that note, there was a ridiculous amount of coughing throughout the show from the audience particularly in the first quarter, which made me wonder if those attendees should have gone to a pharmacy instead of the theatre; it was very distracting for me, so full credit to those on stage for not allowing themselves to be distracted by the increasingly audible coughs). I also have to mention that Dan Bottomley was hilarious as Billy, and though we didn’t hear his singing on too many occasions, his one-liners and random comments (the idea of listening to a Ronan Keating song if you ever need cheering up, for instance) were very amusing, and purely from a comedic standpoint, he stole the show in my opinion. And as noted, the story-telling in general is done very, very well. It manages to be touching rather than soppy, it manages to be thought-provoking rather than bleak, and it manages to combine struggle and hope in such a way that people are able to take away different messages from Guy’s plight, which is hard to achieve in an environment where productions tend to avoid all doubt with their conclusions.
The best compliment I can give Once is that, after watching it, the show made me want to visit Dublin and experience this culture and this way of life for myself. Indeed, Once is fully deserving of its high accolades, and is an absolute must-see during its current run in Liverpool’s Empire Theatre.
Target Audience: Adults Aged 30-50
Content: 4/5 – Frequent Strong Language, Infrequent Sex References
Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding
Once runs at the Empire Theatre until Saturday January 25. To buy tickets, click here or call 0844 871 3017.