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Yorkshire Times
Voice of the North
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Andrew Liddle
Features Writer
4:14 AM 4th February 2020

Once In York

Emma Lucia as Girl and Dan Bott. Photos by Mark Senior
Emma Lucia as Girl and Dan Bott. Photos by Mark Senior
Finding ourselves happily ensconced in the middle of a Dublin pub, somewhere that The Dubliners or Christie Moore might have put in an appearance over the years, we get the immediate feel-good factor. And ten minutes before kick-off, as the stage floods with a dozen or more exuberant Irish street musicians, we think we know what’s to come. We’re in for a rollicking night of trad Irish music, reels and jigs and country dancing - and craic, witty, wordy, and warmly welcoming.

But we’d be wrong.

Yes it’s as Dublin as a dander along to Devitt’s where the purist’s stuff never changes - but tonight we are not in the fabled fair city of Beckett and Molly Malone, but the modern metropolis of Geldorf and Bono, Ronan Keating and Boyzone, where modern people live and work and make a different kind of music.

The cast of Once - UK Tour
The cast of Once - UK Tour
This beautifully-staged adaptation of John Carney’s independent low-budget musical, Once, begins with something played out a million times in folk clubs. A musician is calling the guitar key of E, and improvising a few open chords. Suddenly, however, we are jolted out of the genre. The guy with the guitar who turns out to be Guy, the central character, has turned his song into a howl of protest. He seems to be wailing bitterly about a woman who has broken his heart. Not surprisingly the rest of the crowd, musicians one and all, are turned off by this as much as they are astonished. But there is one who appreciates it, is intrigued by it to the extent of forcing a conversation with the troubled young man. And so begins the love story at the heart of this wonderfully tender, wistfully amusing and hugely uplifting play.

It seems that Guy has found his Gal. (Astonishingly we never discover her name and she is listed as Girl.) She’s Czech and together they make beautiful music, soft rock ballads suffused with a sort of edgy melancholy that is part Celtic and part Eastern European. Yes the folk tradition is there as clear as the head waters of the Liffey but more than a hint of Bohemia is detectable. They seem made for each other, complementing each other, she the trained pianist with the can-do attitude, he the brooding introvert full of creativity and its great begetter, romantic agony. We think we know where it’s heading and recognise the stock amusing types along the way - part of Girl’s family or of the band - there to facilitate the upward trend of the familiar arc. But we might be wrong again with our easy assumptions.

Daniel Healy, clearly a fine actor as well as fine musician - a regular member of Ronan Keating’s live band – is a memorable, totally convincing Guy. Emma Lucia reprising the role she first played in the original run at the New Wolsey, Ipswich, seems to define Girl to the very life. She has a beautiful singing voice, mercifully uncontaminated by pop inflections, and her duets with Guy are a thing of wonder. A dozen prodigiously-talented actor-musicians bring the best out of some really fine tunes, lyrics by Glen Hansard, music by Markéta Irglová.

In these two, he once a Dublin busker, she a native of the Czech Republic, we pretty well have discovered the identities of the original Guy and Girl.

Musicals based on films are fairly commonplace these days but this one, directed adroitly by Peter Rowe, is more than a bit special. An immediate success when it hit Broadway, in 2012, scooping a ton of Tony Awards before transferring to the West End a year later, wherever it has played since it has been to great acclaim. If you’ve seen it before, Once definitely deserves to be seen twice – and if you haven’t yet seen it you’re in for a treat. One of those rare ambrosial nights where everybody – without exception – left the theatre smiling happily.

Once is at York Grand Opera House from 3 to 8 February.