The most profound changes in our lives are often inspired by those who arrive most unexpectedly. Winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song, Falling Slowly, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, is a tender yet evocative cry that epitomises the intimacy of such serendipitous connections. Written, composed, and performed for the Irish musical romance, Once, the success of the 2007 film led to a 2011 theatrical adaptation that quickly featured on Broadway and in the West End, as well as in Seoul, Toronto, and of course, Dublin. It’s taken some time to reach Australasia, but Peach Theatre Company has a knack for obtaining the rights and funds to present large scale works on par with (and even beyond) New Zealand’s leading theatre companies.
The decision to cast musicians as opposed to actors worked in favour of the film, given its indie, diegetic style and predicted off-screen romance, but a lack of stagecraft is not something around which a theatre director can edit. While film dictates what we see, theatre exposes a performer, and it is up to the director to ensure their talent has the tools to navigate such territory confidently. While some are loved by the camera, Adam Ogle, making his theatrical debut, has a stage presence and charisma beyond his musical talents (though some support is still required for his upper register). A phenomenal guitarist, Ogle has a quiet yet intense depth to his portrayal of Guy, at one point delivering a nostalgic monologue with simple yet affective phrasing. This instinctive pacing, however, goes against director Jesse Peach’s beats, with the remainder of the show rushed, especially in the apologetic moments of the script.
While Ogle is at home on stage, Lisa Crawley is uncomfortably stiff. Elbows locked at her sides, she gestures on every line and pivots her entire upper body forwards when trying to make a point. Unfortunately, no point is ever made, as Crawley has no variety of notes in her performance. What makes this so egregious is not an unwarranted expectation or even fault on the part of Crawley as an actress, but the lack of such basic stage craft Peach has failed to provide her, and to have done so is, quite simply, contemptible.
Fortunately, Crawley has an incredibly smooth singing voice and nails the direct dry delivery of the Czech Girl, which provides most of the show’s humour (along with Alistair Sewell’s Svec), and while the notorious dark Kiwi vowels flatten certain words, dialect coach Alexandra Whitham keeps the entire cast otherwise in check.
Having won, among other awards, Best Book of a Musical at the 2012 Tonys, Enda Walsh’s adaptation of John Carney’s screenplay is surprisingly problematic. While the translation to a theatrical world is well-plotted, especially thanks to Matt Munford’s inviting design, supporting characters are incapacitated with two-dimensional conflicts that are never satisfyingly resolved. Shop owner Billy (Peter Tait) is egotistical and hypocritically lecherous, charitable only when his base desires are subdued by a reluctant and alcohol-necessitated favour by Priya Sami’s Réza, while Jesse O’Brien and Jared Hill are both forced to manufacture inequitable ends to their stories as Andrej and Bank Manager respectively.
Fortunately, Emily Campbell, as Ex-Girlfriend, manages to imbue her minimal dialogue with an emotional weight that not only evokes the history of an entire relationship, but also reminds us of the variants of love and how they can be both justified and misconstrued.
While the ensemble aren’t provided with fully-realised characters, their pre-show musical entertainment, driven with impeccable comedic timing by Jackie Clarke, sets a juxtaposing upbeat tone to the sombre romantics for the evening, as some mill through and engage with the audience. Jo Kilgour’s lighting design evokes the communal warmth that music brings and the spotlit streets of Dublin, while Arran Eley’s sound design fills the ASB Waterfront Theatre with a wholesome balance. Like attending an album tour concert of your favourite band, experiencing Hansard and Irglová’s music live by an ensemble of exceptional musicians under the precise musical direction of Josh Clark is truly beautiful. And while the theatrical components might not always fit in place, the charm of Once reminds us of the power of music and the connections we can make with it.