New Wolsey stages regional premiere of heartwarming West End musical Once

PUBLISHED: 15:14 18 September 2018 | UPDATED: 15:14 18 September 2018

Rehearsals for the regional premiere of Once  Picture: Mike Kwasniak

Rehearsals for the regional premiere of Once Picture: Mike Kwasniak

The musical Once has proved itself to be a contemporary classic that tells an aspirational story full of tears and laughter. Arts editor Andrew Clarke speaks to director Peter Rowe and the cast as the play opens the New Wolsey’s autumn season

Rehearsals for the regional premiere of Once  Picture: Mike KwasniakRehearsals for the regional premiere of Once Picture: Mike Kwasniak

Every now and then a show comes along which turns the theatrical world on its head and sets everyone talking. Once is one such show. Written by Commitments star Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, with a book by Enda Walsh, it tells the funny and touching story of a street musician who falls in love with a Czech woman who strikes up a conversation while he is busking in a subway.

The busker, simply known as Guy, is not in a good place. He feels that his dream of being a professional musician is going nowhere but the woman, known simply as Girl, recognises real talent and she slowly starts rebuilding his confidence.

On the surface it seems a simple show – and on a narrative level it is – but it is in the insightful exploration of the characters, in the humour and the heartbreak, that the show finds complexity and real heart.

It is this combination of light and dark, funny and serious, tender and carefree which gives the show real power and an undeniable sense of life writ large. It was these elements which also won the musical eight Tony Awards during its run on Broadway.

Rehearsals for the regional premiere of Once  Picture: Mike KwasniakRehearsals for the regional premiere of Once Picture: Mike Kwasniak

The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, in association with Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, is staging the regional premiere of this life-affirming show as the centrepiece of its autumn season.

New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe says that despite its simple premise of depressed Dublin street musician falling for a funny Czech flower seller, this is a show which speaks a universal truth. It’s about how life is often powered by faith and confidence and how lives can be turned around by meeting that one special person.

As the story progresses, the lone busker starts to assemble a band made up of her wild Czech family and his quirky Irish mates and things start to happen.

The music, played on stage by a cast of actor-musicians, not only illustrates Guy’s musical talents but also serves to provide a window into the thoughts and feelings of Girl and Guy.

Rehearsals for the regional premiere of Once  Picture: Mike KwasniakRehearsals for the regional premiere of Once Picture: Mike Kwasniak

Peter Rowe said: “I view this as a modern romance, a modern fairytale. I said to the cast on the first day of rehearsal, ‘think of it as if all the characters have gathered together in the pub to tell the story’. It’s a rom-com without a fairytale ending. It’s realistic about what the world is like which is what gives the show its power. It’s a bitter-sweet show but ultimately its very rewarding.”

He said that the fact that Girl is Czech gives the show a very contemporary feel and chimes with the Brexit debate but its not something that Pete wants audiences to dwell on. “It’s an undercurrent but I wouldn’t say it forms a major part of the action. I think what it illustrates is that the unlikely band of people, gathered together to make this music, form their own community, just like any group of music -makers. They come together from disparate backgrounds and it is the music that allows them to bond. It is an example of the communities we can make born out of shared interests.”

Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Daniel Healy, who under-studied Ronan Keating in the lead role and performed the role of Eamon in the West End, plays Guy while Emma Lucia will take on the lead role of Girl, having recently appeared in the national tour Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

While the story may appear at first glance to be a two-hander there are a wealth of other characters sharing the stage offering both support and distraction. Among these are some familiar faces. Peter Peverley, who recently played the part of Bobby Robson in Our Blue Heaven, will return in the role of Da, while Lloyd Gorman who starred in Worst Wedding Ever and Our House plays Svejc and panto favourite Sean Kingsley, last seen in Oxy and the Morons in 2017, plays Billy.

For Daniel, Once has been part of his life for many years, and yet each new production reveals new elements which keep things fresh. “It’s been a crazy journey. I was working in LA and I was seen for the Broadway version because it’s quite hard to get decent actor-musicians and then I got cast in the West End version of the show.

“But, what I love about it, is that each production is different. This version is very different from the West End show. The text is so good that it can allow many different interpretations and many different approaches to the characters.”

For Emma Lucia, Once provides a welcome opportunity to play a strong, forthright woman but also someone who turns out to be something of a guardian angel. “What I love about the show is that it deals with lots of areas of life that everyone can relate to: loss, depression, feeling lonely but it does it in a heartwarming way but at the same time really truthful. We’ve all had to cope with ending a relationship and its about learning to put your life back together and carrying on.”

Both Emma and Daniel said that sometimes we need a push from someone on the outside to get our lives back on track. “It all too easy to wallow in self-pity,” Daniel observes. But, as Emma notes Girl is very grounded and is not afraid to ask difficult questions. “I have learned a lot from her. She’s very brave. I can see aspects of me in her but I am not that direct. She just wants the best for people and she’ll just go in and do something about it and can be quite rude and forward but she’s great and I think everyone will just fall in love with her.”

Once is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until September 22 and then at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch from October 3-20.

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