Once on a Thursday

In which I see Once: the Musical – sweet and quietly heartbreaking – and weep like a child for the past. 


A long piggish day at work. Thursdays are usually beset with demands from clients who want things done by Friday so it’s off their desks in time for the weekend – requiring the subtle art of what’s euphemistically referred to as “managing client expectations”.

At lunchtime I go over to Shoreditch – a mere 20 minute walk from the City, but a magical alternative land of skinny jeans, brilliantined moustaches, free range tattoos and sockless ankles. I see Hans for my monthly haircut. At nine years’ standing, he’s my longest term relationship, a factoid I find rather depressing. He’s just back from a friend’s wedding in Australia and filled with the joy and magic of rural Queensland. (I wonder if Prue & Trude from Kath & Kim were at the reception). Afterwards, I nip into T2’s new store in Shoreditch and hoover up as much tea as I can fit in my bag. I buy a Japanese style fat-bottomed cast iron teapot. It’s very beautiful and quite expensive, but only marginally more so than Hans’ haircut. Aaaaah, Shoreditch. I remember you when you were still mildly disreputable and ungentrified. Our babies grow up too soon.

Tonight I’ve got a night off the gym and reading, as I’m going to Once, the musical version of the independent Irish film from a few years ago. It’s been on my to-go-to list for over a year, but hasn’t felt pressing or urgent enough to make time for, especially as it looks to keep playing to full houses for a while yet. The ticket is a birthday present from MJ, who surprises me once a year with something fabulous. Last year it was Matilda, a musical I’m still utterly in love with.

Once is playing at the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road – a theatre I’ve never been to before, as the 20 year-long residency of the musical Blood Brothers has only recently vacated. It’s a lovely little theatre with a small curved stage, perfect for this kind of intimate mood piece. The stage is dressed as an Irish pub, with wood veneer panelling and smoking mirrors lining the walls. Audience members are invited up on stage to buy a drink and listen to the cast, who are already onstage jamming merrily away.

Once is a gorgeous piece of work, decidedly unstarry for a West End musical, and disarming in its simplicity. An Irish boy meets a Czech girl in Dublin, make music together and fall in love over the course of a week. It’s underplayed throughout – perhaps a bit too underplayed, especially the lead female, who wasn’t quite starry enough – with all the emotion seeping into the music.

And what music it is! I tend to hover on a knife-edge with Irish folk. If you’re not on your guard, it can tip into winsome or shampoo commercial at a moment’s notice. The score of Once (much of it written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the film) was pitched just perfectly, carrying emotional sincerity and grace without becoming overly sentimental. There are a few weak moments – the story is fairly slight, and dependent on a host of zany stock characters with “amusing” Czech accents to bring in the laughs. To its credit, it’s played good-naturedly and without a hint of cynicism, which becomes impossible to resist.

The charms of the show are helped enormously by the talented cast, who double as musicians, playing guitars, piano, mandolins and piano-accordions as well as singing throughout. It looks effortless, but it’s the equivalent of a marathon in energy and concentration for each of them. The chief sound engineer, who’s a friend of MJ, tells us in the interval that there was a half hour delay in the matinée show due to a power cut, leaving the poor cast with less than two hours to recover before going back on stage for the evening show. Not that you could tell it from their performances, which were energetic, full-bodied and filled with the enthusiasm of wide-eyed kids spontaneously putting on a show.

I’d known from reading earlier reviews that Once doesn’t end happily – not unusual for an independent Irish film but most unusual for a West End musical. The emotional impact of the love story creeps up on you slowly, while you’re only half-looking. By the end, your heart has been softly and exquisitely trampled.

As I listen to the lovers singing a refrain of Falling Slowly, the show’s signature song, my mind goes on a Proustian flight of fancy back to 1999, and my eight day love affair with D. He was a lovely man, who I met just as I was about to leave my university town and go to the Big Smoke for my first proper job. It was the first time I’d been in love where I both knew and felt that it was reciprocated, and the thrill of our happiness was coloured – and possibly sustained – by the knowledge that it would end. We tried to keep things going for a year or so after I left. Like most long-distance relationships, it was frustrating and unsatisfactory, creating too much expectation on the few times we were together, and too much unhappiness in the long months when we weren’t. Eventually it fractured apart. There were a few horrible arguments, and a long period of hurt silence for a year or so before we found a way to speak to each other again.

As if by magic, the song in Once transports me back in time, past all the unhappiness and squabbling and regrets, and into those first few days – heady, joyful, sleepless, giggling and suffused with the cool plangent colours of early autumn. I remembered waking in D’s bed in the early morning at his flat in the hilly outer suburbs. I left him sleeping as I crept through the house, then sat on the front doorstep and looked at the sunrise. I shivered slightly with the cold, thinking about what would come next – the uncertainty of the future and the certainty of the unhappiness we were both about to feel. I still remember it now, as I did then, not as the moment when I felt most happy, but when I felt the most fully alive.

Once isn’t the most sophisticated take on human relationships, but it speaks to anyone who’s struggled unsuccessfully to hold onto new love in all its fragility, or who’s wondered afterwards about the one who got away. I was happy to see that the audience felt the same as I did, rising to give the cast a well-deserved standing ovation, before we scraped ourselves off the floor and headed out into the rainy summer night to drown our sorrows.

How extraordinary music is, with its ability to transport us immediately back in time. I’m reminded of DH Lawrence’s beautiful poem Piano, which has been recently set to music by singer Nick Mulvey in his song Cucurucu:

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; 
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see 
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings 
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song 
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong 
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside 
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour 
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast 
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.


Summer Solstice

Midsummer’s day in the Northern Hemisphere brings perfect summer weather, but a disappointing war play from an Irishman.


It’s the longest day of the year – the Summer Solstice, in pagan terms, when druids gather to wave burnt sage around the rocks at Stonehenge, and we lesser mortals start to count the slow contraction of the evenings as we move towards midsummer and the autumn.

No druidical frolicking for me tonight – I’m off to see a revival of Sean O’Casey’s WWI play The Silver Tassie at the National. It’s a gorgeous night on the South Bank – warm and sunny with golden evening light that feels more like Spain or Italy than cloudy-with-a-chance-of-rain England. The Queen’s Walk is swarming with people – “They’re coming in droves!”, my mother once said, agape at all the people in one place.

As I wait for Tim, a young couple dance together to Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, which comes out of a tiny dilapidated 1980s tape deck one of them has placed nearby. They’re lean and whippet thin with veiny muscled arms – dance students, probably, or buskers, though there’s no upturned bowler hat anywhere around for coins. It’s been ages since I’ve been dancing.

The Silver Tassie is a strange experience – an experimental and not entirely successful play, given the full National Theatre treatment with elaborate set design, studious performances and some big-assed explosions. It was O’Casey’s first work after his trilogy of highly successful plays (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars) for which he’s still known. William Butler Yeats, the then-director of the Abbey Theatre, rejected it for performance, claiming that O’Casey was making light of the war and didn’t properly understand human suffering like veterans did. O’Casey was incensed and went to the newspapers, claiming that he’d been betrayed by the same theatre that his plays had bankrolled. The play was eventually performed in England, where it was a mixed success.

On the strength of the National production, I’d say Yeats had a point. O’Casey was keen to move away from spit-and-potatoes naturalism and embrace a more expressionist style. The result is a violent lurch from naturalism into surrealism and back again that doesn’t quite work.

The first act is standard O’Casey – a melodrama set in a tenement flat, featuring wisecracking drunk men, hard-working beleaguered women, and enough blarney to choke a leprechaun. The third and fourth acts show the devastation on the community after the war: strapping young men come back crippled and former alpha males get struck down with gas blindness, women betray their allegiances and mothers weep. It’s nicely played but fairly unremarkable fare.

The play is split in half – or elevated, depending on your point of view – by a bizarre second half, set in makeshift army quarters in rural France, just before the regiment are about to go into the trenches. Most of the dialogue is sung in the manner of a sea ditty, and the characters move as if in a trance. O’Casey presumably wanted to capture the madness and surrealism of life in a war zone. It doesn’t quite work, largely because we haven’t established enough of a relationship with the characters (only two of whom featured in the first act) to care enough. The National’s staging feels both bombastic and strangely defensive – as if they felt the need to sandpaper over the faults in the play with a big boys’  display of fireworks. Shells explode and cannons are wheeled on and walls crumble most impressively, but there’s no narrative seam to draw together the complex emotional terrain covered.

In the interval, largely to take our minds of our disappointment, Tim talks about reading Proust for the first time (he’s read it twice now, apparently). Though he’s more of an Anthony Powell man, he recommends Proust (which he persists, charmingly, in pronouncing Prow-st), and encourages me to persevere with the reading project.

After the disappointments of the theatre, we walk from the South Bank to the trains at Vauxhall. It’s a lovely evening: crowds and buskers and food stalls are still buzzing on the embankment around the London Eye, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament look especially gorgeous lit up against the blue-black night sky.

As we near Vauxhall, we see hordes of young people, dressed in 80s-era skinny jeans, stone-washed tank tops and big Dynasty hair that Tim and I are old enough to remember from the first time around. Clubland is just opening for the evening, though it’s the end of mine. It’s off to bed with a cup of apple tea for this little brown hen.