By Courtney Church, October 22, 2017
Originally written for the screen, John Carney’s “Once” translates beautifully from film to the intimacy of a single-set stage. For that reason, the play is not a spectacle in the same way that musical theatre typically is—but “Once” is spectacular in its simplicity nonetheless.
The story is relatively straightforward: a broken-hearted Dubliner, Guy, is on the cusp of abandoning song writing altogether when he is discovered busking by a Czech woman, Girl.
Impressed by his musical talent and lyrical flair, Girl offers to play the piano for Guy if he’ll fix her broken vacuum in exchange. As a musician, a songwriter, and an empathetic ear she implores him to continue pursuing music despite his obvious apathy toward his guitar, which he attempts to abandon on the Dublin sidewalk then and there. Coaxed into a music shop, Guy reveals that his ex-girlfriend has left him for bigger and better things in New York City.
Guy and Girl bond over their shared love of song and their respective failed love lives, all the while tiptoeing around their mutual attraction.
While most people will tell you that “Once” is a love story about a guy and a girl, under Tracey Flye’s direction we’re reminded that it’s also a love story about music itself—a love story that includes not only the lead actors, but the other characters and spectators as well.
Before the show even begins, “Once” has your toes tapping. Set designer Brian Perchaluk’s Irish pub is completely immersive; the rustic wooden bar, yellowed portraits of Irish artists, and the mirror in need of a good scrub serve as a rustic, familiar backdrop.
photo: Claus Andersen
The Grand even invites audience members on stage before the show and during intermission so you can mill about or order a drink from the bar. If you so choose to take the stage, you’ll find yourself stepping out of your seat in London, Ontario and into a pub on Grafton Street, Dublin, amidst actors performing traditional Irish folk and Czech songs.
Once the audience is seated and the play formally begins the stage’s intimacy does not die. Members of the company rarely exit; instead they occupy chairs on stage left or stage right and accompany the music as the main action unfolds. For much of the show they are hidden in shadow as Louise Guinand’s lighting draws your eyes to the scene at hand.
The on-stage instrumental interludes, combined with the play between light and shadow, creates seamless scene transitions that are as harmonic visually as they are musically. Each character and each instrument is equally integral to the performance because, “Ya can’t have a city without music.”
And what a musical city it is.
Daniel Williston’s Billy is a comically captivating music shop owner and his powerful vocals carry the acapella rendition of “Gold.”
Jeff Hamacher’s Bank Manager is an impressive triple threat, but not in the traditional sense—he dances and sings whilst playing the cello with ease.
Alicia Toner’s Reza is as feisty with her violin as she is with her voice.
Issac Bell as Svec, Nathan Carroll as Andrej, and Jane Miller as Baruska form a company of Czech immigrants who provide comic commentary on the Irish way of life. More compelling, though, is how they capture the complexity of trying to navigate a foreign city through the shared language of song.
All this focus on the communal aspect of the performance is not to detract from the main love story plotline.
Jeremy Walmsley as Guy and Amanda LeBlanc as Girl share an infectious chemistry.
Though at times Girl treads dangerously close to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the two leads make up for it with their organic and charming banter. Their connection is all the more compelling as they speak to one another not only in words but also through their instruments.
LeBlanc’s steadfast Girl refuses to allow Guy any slack; through witty quips and pointed delivery, she is characterised as the epitome of the hard-working, no-nonsense immigrant who recognizes that nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
Walmsley’s character development as Guy is masterful; his forlorn façade crumbles as the play unfolds and unmasks the vulnerable and compassionate writer behind his lyrics. The depth of his love reaches beyond Girl and Ex-Girlfriend; his love for his Da and mother again show that “Once” is about all sorts of love, not just romantic affection.
So if you’re ready to fall in love, step onto the stage, order up a pint if you wish, and listen closely to the medley of sounds around you. And don’t forget to say, “Hello,” to the piano.
The Grand Theatre
Oct. 14 – Nov. 4
Purchase tickets online
Box office – (519) 672-8800
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.