REVIEW: Once | BSSTC & Darlinghurst Theatre Company

Image by Daniel James Grant

2 Jun 2022
Review by Cicely Binford

Once, a musical based on the film by the same name, is an awe-inspiring, moving, and often jaw-dropping co-production by Black Swan State Theatre Company and Darlinghurst Theatre Company under the direction of Richard Carroll, musical direction of Victoria Falconer and movement direction by Amy Campbell. Originally produced by Darlinghurst in 2019, this 2022 remount comes to Perth’s Regal Theatre with a mix of local and interstate quadruple-threats (the whole cast sings, acts, moves, and plays instruments), and delivers a musical ode to the love song, come to life.

Toby Francis and Stefanie Caccamo, Image by Daniel James Grant

At the heart of Once is a romance with a difference; yes, there’s a meet-cute with a Guy (Toby Francis) and a Girl (Stefanie Caccamo) over a hoover, but it doesn’t go the way most boy-meets-girl storylines go. The romance that blooms between them goes beyond the will-they-won’t-they tropes and instead grows out of and for the music they create together. Guy is a brokenhearted Irish songwriter down on his luck, and Girl is a strong-willed (and serious) young Czech mother who sees Guy’s potential and pushes him to commit to his talents. While this sounds similar to countless other romances throughout film and theatre history, Once detours away from the road most travelled by giving the narrative The Commitments treatment. The Guy and the Girl get a loan from a sympathetic banker to purchase studio time and then cobble together a band to record an album, all within something like 5 days. This musical does require a considerable commitment to suspension of disbelief from the audience, but luckily our production makes it mostly painless through clever staging that sweeps us from song to song on a tide of movement and instrumentation.

Image by Daniel James Grant

As I mentioned before, the cast of Once is often called upon to do four things at once: sing, emote, play an instrument, and move in formation – and that last one might even happen on skates or sitting on someone else’s shoulders. The music emerges incidentally within the scenes, sneaking up on us from dimly lit corners of the set, and then suddenly coalescing center stage (with levels!) as the music rises. These full ensemble numbers are exciting to witness, but in terms of impact, they simply can’t match Stefanie Caccamo’s solo numbers; her voice has the power to comfort and soothe the most broken of hearts and wring warm tears from cynics’ eyes. It’s both a pity and a relief that she only gets two such moments to bring the audience to its knees – the rattling of tissue packets would soon become a nuisance.

Toby Francis holds the lion’s share of the musical numbers by his guitar strap, and its his character’s arc that provides the show’s framework. He brings an ‘everyman’ quality to the role without a hint of a rock star ego poking through; his vocals remind you of the small-town guy who’s suddenly dragged from doing covers at the local pub and thrust onto the world Idol stage. He’s the sincere, humble underdog hero everyone loves to root for. The show’s other most integral performer is Victoria Falconer, who not only provides the show’s musical direction, but also breathes her charismatic joy into the role of Reza, and plays a mean singing saw to boot.

Victoria Falconer and Patrick Schnur, Image by Daniel James Grant

Set & costume designer Hugh O’Connor creates Irish pub on a scale befitting The Regal while lighting designer Peter Rubie maintains intimacy through creating focused spaces and painting players in as they join numbers. Sound design can make or break musical, and Once’s technical team got the balance just right.

Once will likely end up being one of Perth’s best productions of 2022, and it’s closing this weekend with 5 performances left, so don’t miss it.