We knew him best as Rory Williams and took him to our hearts as Mr Pond, but actor Arthur Darvill is a man of many faces, many roles, and talents that his more ‘casual’ fans may not yet be aware of. Right now – but only until 10 May of this year – you can see him at the Phoenix Theatre in Once – the Musical.
Based on the 2007 Oscar-winning film, Once is the story of a struggling musician (Darvill) who fixes hoovers for a living. When he meets a Czech girl (played with great warmth by Zrinka Cvitešić) they connect, intensely, through a love of music, and she ignites in him a motivating spark that, over the course of one week, changes their lives for ever.
In many ways, it strikes me as though it might be similar to the hugely successful The Commitments (though I’ve never seen that show). But it’s about that search for success, with a big ensemble cast and lots of guitars and fiddles about the place, with misadventures in bars and recording studios.
Now, if you’re not a fan of the West End musical – and believe me, I am avowedly not – don’t be put off by the genre in this particular instance. Once is couched at a very different level. The entire drama takes place on a single Dublin bar-room set, that, by relying on the audience’s participant imagination, becomes a music shop, a couple of homes, a bank, and even an interval bar for the audience (should they be brave enough to use it). It’s clear, from this, that the budget is perhaps smaller than that of equivalent West End fare, but the focus here isn’t on spend and spectacle, but rather on story and talent.
The music that makes the show a musical, is not so much a series of ‘numbers’ (in which people suddenly start singing at each other for no definable reason) as a selection of works created by the two lead characters to play to each other, to record in studio and perform in pubs. The songs are integral to the show and to the lives of the characters, and, what’s more, they’re very good. There is, I must qualify, an occasional danger that they might descend into being the kind of wistful ‘hipster’ tripe that turns up on TV and cinema adverts for phones and computers, but overall they are strong and often interesting works somewhere in that vein tapped by the likes of Damian Rice (which made one of the show’s jokes at the expense of the execrable James Blunt seem somewhat akin to shooting oneself in the foot). The most out-standing song is an acapella/harmony piece in Act 2, as the characters look down on Dublin early one morning (though the bar-room set isn’t lit sympathetically enough to allow the audience to fully believe this).
Arthur Darvill offers a solid interpretation of ‘Guy’, often betraying the truth that Rory Williams wasn’t so much a complete performance as, rather, a selection of Arthur’s own acting tics, many of which are on display here (unless, and this is not unlikely, the director said ‘Give ‘em a bit of Rory, love’). However, it is when he performs the songs (playing acoustic guitar), that he fills the theatre with a magic that few of his fellow cast members can come close to equalling. Arthur is an incredible singer – and I don’t say that lightly. His vocal range is pretty astounding and it spans generations of mainstream rock and pop crooning. In another life he would surely be pursuing a recording career, though this may have been stemmed somewhat by the fact the he looks like, well, Rory Williams and not, say, Captain Jack. But what a revelation Arthur Darvill is – a truly mesmerising vocal talent. This guy sings – and I don’t mean he gives it the West End Wendy – Arthur Darvill gives it soul.
All that said, I hope that after 10 May, Arthur will go on to work better suited to his strong talents. As a complete piece, Once seems to be a reasonably strong – if sentimental – script (though some of the lines are a little groan-inducing, but that could be poor delivery on the part of some of the often weak ensemble) with powerful songs, desperately in search of better direction and tighter production. Sometimes it tries too hard to impress when it really doesn’t need to (the incongruous Czech stomping dance bit which looked like it was happening to some people far away, having a better time than the audience) and other times it tries to be a bit too clever (the unfocused opening that doesn’t so much jump into the drama as meander). What it really needs is focus and perhaps a fresh eye on things like lighting (generally unimaginative), sound levels (the differential between the actors and the music was often appalling), basic performances from the ensemble (that often killed the comedy, though it got laughs) and actor projection, the latter of which was pretty dire throughout. There’s a great piece in here somewhere, but it’s not quite making its way out (and even though the audience seemed to love it, there were sleepy heads in the auditorium).
There is an open-endedness to the script, which resolves the story in a brave and unexpected manner, and even suggested the possibility of a sequel. I’d joke and say the producers ought to call it Twice, but on this viewing of an undeniably vast talent lost in a murky production, I’d say that Once was more than enough.
Once – the Musical is at The Phoenix Theatre, London, and features Arthur Darvill until 11 May.
(With special thanks to Matt Hamm, Simon Harries and Jon Ritelli.)