An actor-musician show at its best, with a multi-talented cast playing lively folk music, ballads, telling a Romeo and Juliet story of broken hearts, and making dreams reality.

Between the Bars has brought an unusual and original show to our attention, and one I had not previously seen. I have to confess an interest in actor-musician shows, and have seen a few lately at one of our leading conservatoires, so I was delighted to be asked to review Once. Totally enjoyable show, leaving me in admiration at the standard of performance!

The story at its heart is ostensibly a simple guy meets girl narrative, but it is so much more with complications, broken hearts, family ties and music woven throughout.

The pre-show kicked off with a brilliant burst of lively folk music played by the on stage band, which had the audience clapping along enthusiastically, while setting the scene.

Ensemble performance

Enter our hero, the Guy, played superbly by Andrew Ruddick. The Guy is busking and performing in Dublin, but his day job is working in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair business. His girlfriend has left for New York and he has stayed, nursing a broken heart. He has been writing and playing music for years, when on the point of giving up, the Girl (Danielle Padley) enters his life, complete with a vacuum that ‘won’t suck’ and persuades him not to abandon his guitar.

The Girl comes from a family of Czech immigrants and brings a completely different view point on everything from Guy, “I am always serious, I am Czech”, as well as the responsibility of a daughter, Ivanka (introducing Anna Hayward). Girl plays the piano in a music shop, owned by her friend Billy (Warren Clark). Guy realises her playing is excellent and they start to make music together.

Guy and Girl

As the story unfolds, the Guy and Girl become closer while the Girl persuades and organises Guy to get his musical career on track and make his dreams a reality. And if you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to buy a ticket (which I highly recommend you do)!

The play is staged with the actors playing the instruments and sitting at the side stage when not in a scene. Playing instruments from the accordion to the cello, the cast managed to switch into acting, playing and singing well (with one or two first night hiccups). Having the instruments as an integral part of the action works so well in this narrative and adds to the impact, but I can see why it would be difficult for the musical director used to a static, standalone band. All the more of a feat well-accomplished for James Harvey!

The band don’t always get along

The two leads, Guy and Girl, build the chemistry fairly quickly, but Girl makes it clear there is to be no ‘hanky-panky’, as she calls it, early on, leading to plenty of opportunity for awkward and poignant moments throughout the action. Andrew and Danielle gave extremely polished performances in these roles, building the interest in the relationship and curiosity of what would happen.

The Czech family is a delight with the mother played brilliantly by Fran Watson with her long and terrifying tales in Czech and the supporting cast and ensemble make this a lively and moving show with all sorts of sub-stories playing out. Shout out to Magdalena Zun who shone both as Reza and in the pre-show performance.

The girl’s Czech family

I found the musical numbers totally enjoyable, especially the Guy and Girl duet Falling Slowly, and the ensemble numbers, loved Ej Pada Pada Rosicka with the accompanying character dance, and The Moon. There were some lovely solos from Guy, my one criticism (of the writers!) is there were not enough solos for the Girl, only The Hill, the rest were duet or ensemble.

Girl and Guy

The final message is of hope, resilience and making your own luck – one we can all take with us especially during these difficult times.

On until Saturday at the ADC https://www.adctheatre.com/once

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