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Once - Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

They’ve brought back Once? Already? It was March 2015 when it left the West End, when even the star casting of Ronan Keating (who was referenced in this new co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch) couldn’t keep the show running. Reviewing commitments elsewhere prevented me from attending opening night in Hornchurch, but as it was, on the whole, positively received, curiosity got the better of me and I went up anyway.

For whatever reason, this production seemed to emphasise the music-making more than the sort-of love story between the unimaginatively named Guy (Daniel Healy) and Girl (Emma Lucia), and for that, it made more sense than the West End show did. This was more about Girl getting Guy’s music out there, despite being a lady of limited means: she has her life, including a daughter Ivonka (a role shared between Isobella Elora Anderson, Lily Jackson and Lily-Anne Wilkin), and Guy has his, helping his ‘Da’ (Peter Peverley) run an electrical appliances repair store.

It’s Billy (Sean Kingsley) who steals the show for me, even more than the bluntness of Girl – a bombastic music shop owner who holds rather forthright views but is, at least, at peace with standing corrected. There’s that ‘aww’ moment when the Bank Manager (Samuel Martin), having sung about a boy whose heart has been “abandoned in Bandon”, a town in County Cork, is told by Guy and Girl that he should refrain from singing altogether.

More than ever, the ending left me thinking, ‘then what?’ What sort of life do Guy and Girl go on to, although it’s made clear that they’ve parted company, albeit amicably? There were people in the audience at the performance I attended that clearly felt more of an emotional connection with the production than me. I suspect they might have latched on to the pleasantness of it all – is there even an antagonist? (And, as the satirical musical revue Forbidden Broadway asks – is there even an orchestrator?) Everyone’s just pitching in, doing what they can for one another, with no detectable villainy.

In that regard, it’s not meant to work, and for my fellow reviewer Terry Eastham, the West End production failed on almost every level: “It felt as if someone had found a CD of the dullest and most despondent Irish songs and decided to write an extremely thin story around them.” True, it wasn’t exactly U2. But it’s charming, and there’s a strange appeal to the elements of the plot that don’t work out well. For all the musicals that preach about shooting for the stars, aiming big and high, and going for gold because we all only have one life, there’s Once. And in Once, there’s Andrej (James William-Pattison) – and I’ve been in his shoes, told that I was the frontrunner for a job, psyched myself up for an interview, only for the panel to go with someone else, leaving my recruitment consultant and myself frankly numb. As Andrej put it, “Bastards! Bastards!”

I might have been the only one amused by Guy’s opening number, in which he almost screams into the microphone, “Leave! Leave!” – I’d only just sat down for one thing, and Havering, the borough where Hornchurch lies, was apparently the only London borough to have a majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Anyway, the actor-musicianship was always going to be of good quality – the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch has even done pantomimes with on-stage bands, and their previous actor-muso productions of Made in Dagenham and Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical set them in good stead for Once. One of these days they’ll do a good regional production of Come From Away. But for now, what a performance!

Until 20 October 2018.

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