Review: Once is a foot-stomping, tear-jerking musical delight in Milton Keynes

Alan Wooding reviews Once the Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre

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The cast of Once. Picture: Mark SeniorThe cast of Once. Picture: Mark Senior
The cast of Once. Picture: Mark Senior

It's rare these day that I see a touring musical and be blown away by it - but Once is simply one of those shows that had that effect on me.

Once the Musical opened in Milton Keynes Theatre last night (Monday) for a week-long run and it deserved the rapturous applause at the final curtain. Meanwhile its best known, Academy Award-winning song, Falling Slowly (whose tuneful strains feature throughout the show), received whoops and cheers from the audience.

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From the start it felt like you'd just arrived in time for a typical Irish ceilidh. In fact I'm amazed that the audience isn't issued with a pint of Guinness apiece and asked to raise a glass and shout Sláinte.

The story is simply a 'girl meets boy' affair – or in this case, 'Girl meets Guy' – with all the action taking place in a Dublin pub where everyone is enjoying the craic.

The Girl in question is from the Czech Republic and when she hears street busker Guy's song of unrequited love, she encourages him to keep writing and singing. At the time, vacuum cleaner repair man Guy (Daniel Healy) is about to give up on his musical dream after his girlfriend had deserted him (and Ireland) to live in New York.

Girl (Emma Lucia) suggests to Guy that if he can fix her old upright cleaner for free - in return she'll play piano and accompany him. "Are you serious?” he says. “I’m from Czech Republic, we’re always serious,” is her reply.

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It's a rather simple storyline about two people with issues while the music (originally written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) is superbly delivered by an ensemble of 15 on-stage musicians who breathe life into the whole show with their amazing ability to energetically dance around and play at the same time.

There are also some really great songs – I especially loved If You Want Me sung by Girl, Reza (Ellen Chivers) and Guy's ex-girlfriend (Rosalind Ford) – while the language translations are displayed as surtitles displayed high above the stage.

There was a comical number delivered by actor Samuel Martin, the bank manager from Cork. His Abandoned in Bandon was sheer brilliance while there were more musical crowd pleasers from the likes of Billy (Dan Bottomley), the usually drunken music store manager, while Lloyd Gorman's Svec provided another comedic moment as he strips off his tracksuit bottoms to reveal a bright red pair of skimpy briefs before sitting down to play the drums.

With Billy claiming Spanish heritage, he tries to prove it in a bullfighter/flamenco-style dance with an equally drunk Reza. They are backed by the whole ensemble playing together on four guitars, as many fiddles/violins, two accordions, a piano, drum and a couple of mandolins plus Rosalind Ford somehow playing the cello while dancing around.

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Full marks to Emma Lucia as Girl whose voice and piano-playing is spot on especially when singing The Hill which is really moving. As for Daniel Healy, his performance is superb as he sings and plays guitar throughout, his voice complementing Emma's so well that you really believe they are very much in love. Just listen to Gold, a beautiful harmony number sung a cappella-style which literally gave me goosebumps.

The cast – who are all excellent musicians in their own right – also includes David Heywood as Emcee, Matthew Burns as Eamon, Peter Peverley as Guy's old Da, Susannah van den Berg as Billy's 'love interest' Baruska and James William-Pattison as fellow Czech burger-flipper Andrej. Besides the above are fellow ensemble musicians Emma Fraser, Seán Keany, Hanna Khogali and Conor McFarlane while the role of Ivonka (Girl's very young daughter), is played alternatively by either Vyie Moore or Anya Pilling.

All the action takes place within the space of five days while the pub is transformed into a musical store, a recording studio, Guy's house and also his bedroom, with a minimal movement of props.

The Once story was originally written by award-winning Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh while this touring production is directed by Peter Rowe with set and costume design by Libby Watson and musical supervision by Ben Goddard.

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"It'll be full of that Irish 'diddly-dee, diddly-dee' style music," said my daughter when I told her what we were going to see - and to a certain extent she was absolutely right. The Irish music influence is certainly there, and what a cracking foot-tapping soundtrack Once the Musical proves to be – I absolutely loved it!

Down the years I've seen several 'boy meets girl-type' musicals but this one is somehow different. Once is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, loving and loathing and while I'm never happy with some of the language, I'm certain that the majority will not be disappointed.

* Once the Musical plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday (February 22) with ticket prices starting at £13 from the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 or online at (booking fees apply).