**** ONCE brings it all back home

The hit stage version of the cult film takes on new life in the city where it is set

Having pulled off the improbable transformation from cult low-budget film to blockbuster Broadway musical, the stage adaptation of John Carney’s 2006 film, about two lovelorn Dublin-based musicians, here returns to the city where it is set. This brings challenges: after all, what is a charmingly earthy portrayal of Irish urban life, at least for international audiences, runs the risk of appearing twee or hackneyed in local eyes.

A London version of the show briefly ran in Dublin in 2013, and this is a new iteration of the franchise. That it overcomes such local perils is a tribute to playwright Enda Walsh, who writes the book with an acute eye (and ear) for detail. But, more crucially, it is down to the winning universality of its bitter-sweet tale, exuberant stage rendering and the music of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whose songs take on new life here.

Although it features a new cast, the production keeps many of the elements that made the original a hit, from John Tiffany’s direction (with Des Kennedy as associate director) to Bob Crowley’s striking set design of a postcard Irish pub. The film’s basic plot is also retained. Dublin busker Guy (Tom Parsons) meets Czech girl (Megan Riordan), a pianist and mother who encourages him to record a demo before he emigrates in pursuit of an ex-girlfriend (Lisa Fox). Walsh fleshes out proceedings with hearty humour and more fully realised side characters, such as Phelim Drew’s bragging music store owner and Jamie Cameron’s repressedbank manager.

The music is the show’s trump card, and the cast infuse the songs with communal energy and kinetic vitality, thanks to some raw choreography. There are quibbles. The otherwise likeable Parsons occasionally lapses into a curious mid-Atlantic accent, and for all the spirited rendition of the songs, it may not be enough to win back those suffering from terminal overexposure to the show’s big number, Falling Slowly.

Once is as accurate a portrait of contemporary Dublin as West Side Story is of 1950s New York. (Despite its grimy settings and cinema verité style, Carney’s warm-hearted film offered a similarly idealised vision of the city.) But rooted in the realities of migration, both inward and outward, it is an affectionate yet authentic paean to the place, as well as a wider musical fantasy of love won and lost.

Review by Mick Heaney for The Irish Times 15th July 2015