“The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping”
This new musical – book and lyrics by April de Angelis, music and lyrics by Lucy Rivers – brings to life William Hogarth’s shocking 1751 etching ‘Gin Lane’ portraying grotesque caricatures of people suffering from the Gin Craze that was rife in the early part of the eighteenth century. As the curtain rises, we meet a number of these ladies under the influence who sing, dance, and extol the virtues of their favourite tipple. A pawn broker’s sign hangs close to the stage, the same sign as in Hogarth’s print.
The set (designed by Hayley Grindle) is built on two levels and reinforces a view of the class divide with the wealthy Fielding family and a semi-sozzled Queen Caroline appearing on the upper level whilst the gin ladies are firmly rooted on the ground and at the bottom of society. Through the shadows of wooden beams and hanging ropes, we can see various musical instruments: harpsichord, violin, cello, double bass, guitar, timpani. Each member of the eight strong ensemble takes their turn at becoming the band. Plus the ever-present MD Tamara Saringer at the keys.
For much of the time we could describe this as a folk musical. The singing is gentle and refined, the lyrics ballad-like in form, and the duets between the two main leads contain excellent close folk harmonies. The arrangement of the songs is most striking particularly those making use of violin and cello underlay.
The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping. “Gin Dive” is the standout song that reappears close to the end in a poignant unaccompanied close harmony version. “It’s the Law” becomes a good old cockney knees-up with comedy trombone. Many of the scenes can be described as bawdy – and are especially enjoyed because of that – at times they are out-and-out plain rude.
The plot – or the message of the show, perhaps – is summed up with the song title, “What does a woman have to do to get a better life?”. We follow the journey of Mary (Aruhan Galieva) who whilst working as a servant is knocked up by the visiting priest, kicked out into the street, tricked into giving away her baby, and narrowly avoids rape and prostitution by setting up as a gin hawker. We learn that life for a woman is not a bed of roses. But then, Mary befriends Lydia (Paksie Vernon), her saving grace.
Director Michael Oakley produces the most spirited scenes when the gin women appear on stage together. If their individual characters do appear on the caricature side of sincere then we can allow that they may have been first based upon a cartoon. But, in the midst of tragedy, despite the best efforts of this hard-working cast, there is little tension to be felt and we remain unmoved. Particularly, much of the momentum is lost after the interval as attention turns away from the rumbustious Gin Lane into the genteel home of the foppish Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni) and his do-gooder sister Sarah (Rachel Winters).
April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers have created a most fascinating feminist – and musical – response to an interesting period of English history which reflects well on Hogarth’s masterpiece that initially inspired the idea.
“The lovelorn numbers may be predominantly in the minor keys, but the show is a major triumph”
It is a popular genre at the moment: the list is vast, and still growing, of movies turned into musical stage shows. They are greeted with varying degrees of commercial and critical success, but once in a while a show stands out from the crowd. “Once” is one of those shows and it is simultaneously easy and hard to see why. Dispensing with the razzamatazz and big budget bombast it quietly charms with a simplicity that aims straight for the heart.
Based on John Carney’s film of the same name it features the music and lyrics of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Carney and Hansard were both members of Irish band, The Frames, and the autobiographical slant (Hansard also spent many years busking on the streets of Dublin) lends an unforced authenticity to the evening. The unwavering quality of detail extends to all aspects of the production. From the outset Libby Watson’s brilliantly effective design draws us into a pub, somewhere in Dublin and somewhere in the last two decades of the twentieth century. It’s seemingly a lock-in and a ceilidh is in full swing. In a seamless shift from pre-show to show we find ourselves back out on the streets where Guy, a busker, stands alone with just a guitar and an emotionally charged, cracked voice. You’ve seen him, every hundred yards, along Grafton Street, in rain or shine, pouring more of his heart into his battered case than passers-by drop coins. A Czech woman (known simply as ‘Girl’) is captivated. She rescues him from his torpor and the ensuing ‘will-they-won’t-they’ romance is a delight. We have fallen in love with them way before we discover whether they will fall in love with each other.
Enda Walsh’s book shows him on top form, mixing quick-fire comic patois with pathos. Often in the same line. “Love is all very well but in the hands of people it turns to soup”. We laugh but we know it’s true. And the truth is there right up to the unsentimental unpredictability of the outcome. It is as human as you can get, matched by the performances. Daniel Healy’s ‘Guy’ is a beautifully studied portrayal of the wary, diffident troubadour who can really only belt out his true self in song. Emma Lucia beguiles as ‘Girl’; brutally honest and teasing yet vulnerable and tender. The equally magnificent supporting cast take on a variety of roles, in between which they pick up a variety of musical instruments to startling effect.
And this is where the show comes into the fore. The musicianship is faultless and under Peter Rowe’s stylised direction and Francesca Jaynes’ choreography the staging is beautifully crafted. The ensemble move as one with metronomic precision. Often such technical virtuosity can soften the emotional punch, but it is the music that ultimately leads us to the standing ovation this show deservedly receives. Rooted in Celtic folk and Irish culture it has a very contemporary feel, be it Indie-Folk, Indie-Rock, Folk-Rock or another combination. It wears its influences openly but there is no denying the heart-melting effect of the close harmonies and keening melodies. Lucia’s gorgeous solo rendition of ‘The Hill’, the ensemble, a Capella ‘Gold’, Healey’s tender, melancholic ‘Leave’ are but a few of the numbers that pave the way to the climactic, Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’ which, once again, hits the jackpot.
‘Once’ is a musical that is anthemic and intimate. The lovelorn numbers may be predominantly in the minor keys, but the show is a major triumph.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Fairfield Halls until 11th January then UK tour continues