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From Dublin pub to Coventry stage – Once comes to Coventry

Posted on 20 February 2020

It’s been an Oscar-winning film, a West End hit and a multi-award-winning Broadway smash. Now Once is setting out on its first ever UK tour, set to hit the Belgrade Theatre from 10-14 March.

Shot on a micro-budget of just $160,000, John Carney’s Irish indie film has become an extraordinary success story, winning over audiences with its bittersweet story of Guy meets Girl, and uplifting soundtrack of original songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, including the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly”.

Music is the beating heart of Enda Walsh’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation, which sees the central characters – a Dublin street busker and a Czech musician – supported by a big ensemble of actor-musicians.

Ahead of the show, we had the chance to visit rehearsals for the show, where director Peter Rowe and musical supervisor Ben Goddard told us more about what to expect when their new touring production arrives in Coventry.

Peter Rowe and Ben Goddard in rehearsal for Once

“It’s a story that takes palace over just seven days, so it all happens within a week,” says Peter. “At the beginning of the story we meet this heartbroken Dublin singer-songwriter, whose girlfriend left him about six months ago and went off to New York.

“Meanwhile, his attempts to build a music career have got him nowhere at all, so he’s about to give up on all that, and we see him playing what he thinks will be his last song and putting down his guitar to leave it behind.

“And all the time this Czech girl is watching him, and she responds to that – I think she recognises in him the same despair that she’s seen in her father before, and so she decides to intervene.

“Over the course of the next seven days, they gradually get together this unlikely band of people, consisting of the guy who lets her play the piano in his music shop for free, all of her Czech family and friends back in her flat, and a bank manager who they go to for a loan to enable them to hire a studio for 24 hours. So it’s a very motley crew of people but together they manage to create extraordinary music.”

Even before we’ve been introduced to any of the characters, the very first thing we see and hear as we enter the auditorium is the cast playing music together. The show opens with a very informal, naturalistic-seeming jam session, everyone joining in with familiar Irish tunes, and creating a similar atmosphere to that you might find in any pub where folk groups regularly meet.

Out of this setting, the story unfolds organically, as if our leading man – played on tour by Daniel Healy, a singer-songwriter in his own right who has performed and recorded with Ronan Keating – is just one member of this band of local musicians.

“I said to the company very early on in rehearsals that it’s a bit like all of the characters have gathered together in the pub to tell this story after it has happened – as if they’re reliving it two years afterwards,” Peter explains.

It’s not just the style of the performance that creates this relaxed, pub-like atmosphere: the set itself is inspired by real venues Peter visited with designer Libby Watson.

Daniel Healy and Emma Lucia

“We had a lovely research trip where we went to Dublin for an extended weekend and just visited as many pubs as we could,” he laughs. “We took photographs of lots of bits of detail in the music pubs.

“Libby was particularly fascinated by the layers of posters that had been endlessly glued over with new ones – so you get a real sense of the history of all the music that has been played in the pub over the years, like it has soaked into the floors and the walls. That’s the kind of feeling we wanted to recreate.”

While locations change throughout the story, the music feels like part of the fabric of every place the characters visit, adding texture to the world that they exist in, rather than breaking up the narrative.

“I would say it’s as much a play with songs as it is a piece of musical theatre,” he adds. “It doesn’t have musical theatre songs in the sense of characters bursting into song to express what they’re feeling within a scene. They’re all placed as songs that are performed by the characters within the story – whether on the street or in a studio or in Billy’s shop.”

The cast of Once

It’s an approach to storytelling that both Ben and Peter have built up a reputation for, having worked on numerous actor-musician-led productions together and individually. Once is one of many shows to emerge from the New Wolsey Theatre’s Actor Muso company, where Ben has served as Musical Director for the last 18 years, under Peter’s long tenure as the theatre’s Artistic Director. As a director, Peter’s credits include massively successful musicals like 20th Century Boy.

“I think for me there’s something about the way that making music together instantly bonds a company,” he said. “It also creates a very democratic environment where everybody brings different but equivalent skills to the table. So although there are two very strong central parts in this that carry most of the story, we feel that in the room we’re all equally contributing, so there’s no hierarchy in the process at all, and I think the audience responds to that, too.”

“No one goes off and sits in the dressing room,” adds Ben. “I did conventional musical theatre as a performer, and in one show I did, I was playing one of the leads and I was on stage for 20 minutes, which is a really weird thing that happens. But that’s not true of the sort of work we do. Everybody tells the story together, and there’s something incredibly powerful about that.”

The cast of Once

Both also have connections to Coventry, primarily via the Belgrade’s former Artistic Director Bob Eaton.

“Like me, Bob is an ex-Artistic Director of the London Bubble Theatre Company, which has a strong actor-musician tradition that Bob brought to Coventry during his time there,” says Peter. “My first show in Coventry was called Leader of Pack, which was about Ellie Greenwich and the songs she wrote for big girl groups like The Ronettes and the Shangri-Las. I wrote and directed and launched it in Coventry and had a fantastic time doing it.”

“I love Cov – I did one of my first plays there,” adds Ben. “I was in The Good Companions, which was directed by Bob Eaton, and I just had the best time – the company was great and I made a lot of friends for life.

“More recently I co-created Jackie the Musical which was in Coventry in 2016, and of course going back a few years ago, it had all completely changed. But the soul of Coventry and the feel of it that I remembered was still there. It’s brilliant, I love it – it’s the home of 2-tone, so end of discussion.”

Once shows at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry from 10-14 March. Tickets are available to book now.