To my mind, there is nothing worse than a review which proclaims: “Everyone else in the audience loved it, but I thought it was terrible.” It’s a stance that can’t help but feel condescending, implying that 1) the critic sees themselves as the lone intelligent observer adrift in a sea of dumb proles, and 2) their write-up is, by default, a minority viewpoint of which little notice need be taken.
Therefore, I’m going to shy away from saying that everyone in the audience appeared to love Once, except for me. I actually didn’t think it was terrible, just terribly maudlin and self-satisfied. The piece clearly has some sort of power to move people, as confirmed by the tears and standing-ovations. But if I were at all like that condescending critic, I wouldn’t shy away from saying that it left me in a state of complete inertia.
In fairness, there’s much to praise about this production. The slow-burning poignancy of Enda Walsh’s libretto, the atmospheric scenic and lighting designs by Bob Crowley and Natasha Katz, the nuanced performances from Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitesic as the struggling songwriter and his muse, the effortless direction by John Tiffany – no show containing any single one of these outstanding elements could be a dud. Yet their collective contributions are somehow rendered futile by the numbing impact of the underwhelmingly banal score, consisting of the most unmemorable songs ever to feature in a show that won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
The fifteen interchangeable folk-ballads, provided by the lyrically-mawkish and melodically-derivative songwriting team of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, threaten to utterly derail a show that repeatedly emphasises the “soul” and “heart” in the music. Those nebulous words, often cited by misty-eyed judges on televised talent show panels, are bandied about with such earnestness by the characters that it’s nigh-on impossible not to listen with a cynical pair of ears. A rejected B-side by Damien Rice, something from The Corrs’ disappointing fourth album, Mumford & Sons with less energy. I feel like informing Vodafone that they needn’t look any further for a soundtrack to their next advertising campaign.
Thankfully, this non-music is exceptionally well performed by the actor-musicians. Bennett’s distinctive vocal soars over the expressive playing of Flora Spencer-Longhurst on violin and Jez Unwin on cello. In the second act, there is one undeniably thrilling musical zenith, ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’, in which overlapping voices and instruments create a satisfying, if harmonically-ordinary, mélêe. The cumulative effect of the score, though, is one of severe overkill, and it’s extremely telling that a fragment of “bad” music, comically-performed by a straight-laced banker (Unwin) deemed lacking in vocal talent, is met with a welcome release of spontaneous laughter and the warmest applause of the evening.
Bennett’s character unwittingly hits the nail on the head when he asks his drummer, a self-professed heavy metal enthusiast, “Can you play more softly? Muffle the drums?” The trouble with this show is that it confuses softness with significance. The muffling of the drums is a convenient analogy: the impact of Once is ultimately deadened and dampened by its empty soundscape, which lacks that intangible quality the script requires it to possess. But hey, everyone else seemed to love this Irish Romeo and Czech Juliet, clad in plaid shirts and Ugg boots, losing themselves in acoustic music with all of their “soul” and “heart,” so I’m fully prepared to admit that this condescending write-up may be a minority viewpoint. Feel free to take no notice.